Gov. Charlie Crist's bid to buy a massive swath of farmland for Everglades restoration won final, critical approval Wednesday, with water managers endorsing a smaller, more affordable version of the controversial deal.
It would pay the U.S. Sugar Corp. $536 million for 72,800 acres of sugar fields and citrus groves, with the goal of turning them into huge reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes to restore the flow of clean water to the River of Grass — at an undetermined time and a sure-to-be staggering price running into the billions.
The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, whose members came within a single vote of rejecting a previous $1.34 billion offer for 180,000 acres in December, passed the downsized version 6-1 with little debate or drama.
"That was then, this is now. This is a totally different package," said board member Charles Dauray, one of two who switched sides and supported a revamped deal that cut costs, and acreage, by 60 percent.
It was the last government hurdle for a landmark purchase Crist first pitched last year — though lawsuits, an uncertain credit market and the shaky state economy still could derail it.
Crist, who sent board members letters Tuesday evening, watched a Web cast of the vote from Tallahassee and took a congratulatory call immediately afterward from Michael Sole, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who was at the meeting in West Palm Beach to urge support.
"He was just thrilled to death," Sole said.
The governor called the purchase a "once in a lifetime opportunity'' to give the Everglades and its wildlife a "brighter and more secure future."
But the new deal, Sole acknowledged, is not necessarily a done deal yet.
Even with the new contract pushing a closing deadline to as late as next June, significant obstacles remain, starting with financing.
"That's just the reality," Sole said. "No money, no deal."
The district's plan to bankroll the purchase with bonds faces not just a global credit squeeze but legal challenges from rival grower Florida Crystals, the Miccosukee Tribe and a civic group in Clewiston. The new deal did not assuage their concerns.
Joseph Klock, an attorney for Crystals, sent the board a four-page letter Tuesday arguing that the new proposal would put a half-billion dollars of taxpayer money into land that won't be available for years.
He also contended that it will siphon funds from existing projects, push broader restoration efforts back decades and pile some $5 to $9 billion of new projects onto the plate of an agency already grappling with declining revenues.
The district is studying nine sketchy concepts, most focusing on converting farmland into reservoirs to store water or into marshes to cleanse polluted runoff. But there are no cost estimates yet.
Miccosukee attorney Claudio Reidi ripped the plans, saying they require land U.S. Sugar doesn't own and money the district doesn't have.
"These are not plans, they are fantasies," he said.
Though top managers assured board members the water agency can afford the revamped deal, the expected $43 million to $46 million annual debt to finance it remains a serious hurdle with Florida's reeling economy.
The district, largely supported by property taxes in 16 counties, retains the right to pull out up to the day of closing if revenues plummet to the point where the deal would cut into essential operations, such as flood control. The complex, 69-page contract is sprinkled with escape clauses over financing problems or lawsuits.
Still, the revised deal clearly has broader support and brighter prospects than earlier versions.
Negotiators for U.S. Sugar and the state, bowing to political pressure and a declining economy, scaled the deal back significantly from the stunning $1.75 million buyout Crist pitched in June — just as the state's housing market, employment rate and tax revenues began to hit the skids. It took a major lobbying push by Crist and supporters to win board approval of the $1.34 billion land-only version that followed.
In April, the governor announced a third smaller, cheaper version that also preserved more jobs in rural Glades towns. The new deal, which leaves enough land to support the U.S. Sugar mill near Clewiston for perhaps 20 years, tempered criticism from Glades communities. Pledges from Crist to support a major shipping hub also helped.
Kevin McCarthy, a Hendry County commissioner, said he remained concerned but that the deal bought more time to reshape rural economies.
"What we have gotten is a stay of execution from seven years to 10 years to possibly 20 years," he said.
In addition, the new deal triples an annual lease the company will pay to farm its own land until the state builds on it, and gives the district a 10-year option to buy the company's remaining 107,500 acres at $7,400 an acre — an option the district acknowledges it almost certainly won't have the money to exercise.
But in the first three years, the district would have exclusive rights to that land, opening the door to cut deals or swap land with other growers or interests.
While state environmental groups have championed the deal since last June, another key supporter emerged during the meeting — the Obama administration. The Everglades National Park superintendent was dispatched, with White House approval, to back the deal.
Environmentalists were thrilled with the approval, calling the sugar lands key to resolving water pollution and supply problems that for decades have plagued South Florida's interlinked ecosystems — the Glades, Lake Okeechobee, and the Caloosahatchee River to the southwest and St. Lucie River to the east.
Though the new deal alone falls short of the 100,000 to 120,000 acres they believe are needed to fill holes in the existing $11 billion Everglades restoration plan, it still ranks as the state's largest conservation land buy.
"If you'd have told us last June that we'd be getting 73,000 acres of sugar, we'd have been ecstatic," said Mark Kraus, senior vice president of the Everglades Foundation.