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Water managers okay Florida-U.S. Sugar land deal

MIAMI — All the familiar critics turned out Thursday to blast Gov. Charlie Crist's no-longer-so-big sugar land purchase as a bad deal that could wind up hurting Everglades restoration more than it would help it.

They were joined by a few fresh faces: Tea Party protesters and Rick Scott, the multi-millionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate. Scott charged that rival Bill McCollum, the state's attorney general, had cut a "secret deal'' with the U.S. Sugar Corp, which stands to pocket more than $197 million from selling its land.

Scott, with a heckler hounding his every word, suggested the deal would result in a ''secret sugar tax."

McCollum later flatly denied the accusation: "I don't know what he's talking about. There is no deal."

The political sideshow in West Palm Beach did nothing to alter the outcome of the vote by the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. All Crist appointees, they did as they have with three previous decisions on much larger, more expensive versions of the plan. They agreed in a unanimous 6-0 vote, with three members absent, abstaining or ill, that the state could not pass up the rare opportunity to buy so much land for Everglades restoration.

The district would pay U.S. Sugar $197 million cash for 26,800 acres, most of it citrus groves.

That's a fraction of the stunning, $175 billion proposal Crist laid out more than two and a half years ago to buy out U.S. Sugar and convert much of its 180,000-plus acres to reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes. The new deal gives the district options to buy all or part of the land for up to 10 years.

Shannon Estenoz, a district board member from Plantation who has championed the deal, acknowledged that plummeting property tax revenues had put previous scaled-down deals out of reach.

But, she argued, the brutal economy hadn't reduced the need for more land to store and clean Everglades water, with federal judges blasting the state for "glacial delays'' in cutting the flow of farm and suburban pollution. "We do not have the resources to solve all of the problems at once," she said. ''It's absolutely critical that we act and we act now."

The deal still must overcoming an injunction filed by the Miccosukee Tribe and win approval from two federal judges in Miami overseeing Everglades cases.

The tribe, along with rival growers led by Florida Crystals, mounted a fierce legal and lobbying assault that painted the deal as a sweetheart bailout for a major Crist campaign donor. Thursday, they and others renewed the attacks, saying the new deal would stick the state with poorly located land it wouldn't be able to build anything on for decades and actually delay Everglades restoration.

"Buying land accomplishes nothing," said Mike Collins, as former board member and outspoken critic of the deal. "We have got to build projects."

The new deal, set to close by Oct. 11, would pay U.S. Sugar $10 million if the district walks away, a penalty the district's lawyers said wouldn't apply if a court halts the purchase.

The district plans to pay for the purchase from a reserve account used to buy land for restoration projects. ric Buermann, the board's chair, called the deal a "fiscally prudent pay-as-you-go-approach." The board has pledged not to raise taxes to pay for the deal.

For Scott, his first public effort to wade into Everglades restoration issues got a little messy.

He showed up outside the district's headquarters to back a handful of Tea Party members who have billed the deal "Charlie's bailout." Scott echoed that view but focused his attack on McCollum, who he said had been "bought and paid for'' by nearly $1 million in direct and indirect contributions from U.S. Sugar and sat "idly by'' while Crist pushed the deal.

But Scott was nearly drowned nearly out by one disgruntled Tea Party leader, who stood next to him firing a stream of questions and holding a hand-drawn sign, "Where's the deposition?" — a reference to Scott's refusal to release a deposition he gave in a lawsuit against a chain of health clinics he owned.

Everett Wilkinson, a Palm Beach Gardens resident and chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, said he believed Scott was flip-flopping on the land buy. He had called the Everglades deal "great'' in a July interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

"That's kind of hypocritical, isn't it? '' Wilkinson said.

A frustrated Scott cut his appearance short, retreating to a waiting car. His staff said he later returned to offer more details to reporters in the lobby. In an interview after the protest, Scott construed McCollum's seeming reluctance to take a formal position the land buy as implicit support for a deal that he said would benefit a top McCollum campaign supporter.

"He's taken a position by not opposing it," Scott said.

He said Everglades restoration, while important. should not come at the price of new taxes, arguing, "There's no way to pay for it if they don't raise taxes."

Campaign finance reports show that U.S. Sugar gave a McCollum political committee $350,000 in June, a group Scott claimed launched political attacks on him. The company funneled even more cash through other political committees, which in turn contributed at least $600,000 to McCollum. Robert Coker, the company's vice president and lobbyist, is a major McCollum supporter.

Scott, on the other hand, has support from Florida Crystals and the powerful Fanjul family that controls it. Gaston Cantens, a Florida Crystals vice president, said the company had contributed to both campaigns but more heavily to Scott. But he stressed that the company had not asked Scott to help fight the deal.

McCollum and U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez both dismissed Scott's charges of a "secret deal."

"I have not cut any deal with anybody whatsoever. Period," said McCollum, who added that he remains lukewarm on the land purchase.

"I don't know if this is a good deal or a bad deal," he said.

Jonathan Ullman, the Sierra Club's Everglades field representative, dismissed the Tea Party protest as a stunt.

"Where have they been for the last 2 1/2 years? All of the sudden they show up?" he said. "They should be happy about this deal. It's land bought and paid for without running up debt."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and John Frank contributed to this story.

Water managers okay Florida-U.S. Sugar land deal 08/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 9:05pm]
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