WEST PALM BEACH — Gov. Charlie Crist's grand plan to revive the dying Florida Everglades by buying back the land, a key part of his legacy, could be on the cusp of collapsing and dealing another blow to his Senate hopes.
A panel that oversees Everglades restoration is set to decide today whether to kill the state's proposed $536 million deal to buy 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. The proposal, much trumpeted by Crist, has already been cut by more than half from the initial plan announced in 2008, which was $1.75 billion for about 180,000 acres and the company's assets.
While the board is likely to vote to keep the plan alive for now, the shaky proposal has been hammered by some.
Critics have questioned Crist's motives, claiming they're more politics than preservation. They contend, among other things, the cost has been inflated by U.S. Sugar executives hoping to pad their pockets, knowing the governor wants the land regardless. They say it will stall other key projects because the state won't have any money left to construct the reservoirs and water treatment marshes needed for restoration, making the entire proposal a boondoggle.
"I think he's killing restoration virtually forever," said Dexter Lehtinen, an attorney for the Miccosukee Indians, who live in the Everglades and are fighting the land deal in court alongside Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar's main rival.
They seek to stop financing for bonds the state wants to issue to pay for the deal. Florida Crystals has also argued the deal will give an unfair business advantage to its competitor, because U.S. Sugar can lease back the land at a nominal rate for a number of years until projects are under way.