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Plan to sell protected land draws protests

When the state bought the towering sugar-sand dunes of Topsail Hill beach in 1992, it was lauded as one of the most important conservation buys of the decade.

Now, four years later, Florida environmentalists are crying foul over a plan to sell off some of the adjacent public forest land _ bought with money from the state's popular Preservation 2000 program _ for development.

Some of the public land proposed for sale is rare scrub habitat. Endangered red cockaded woodpeckers may live on some of it, biologists say. Some of it has informal public trails, where neighbors hike and ride bikes.

"There are citizens who use this land and don't even know it is slated for disposal," bike enthusiast Celeste Cobina told the state's Conservation and Recreation Lands Committee at a hearing earlier this month.

The issue highlights the tricky balancing act between environmental preservation and development dollars. Environmentalists from the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy say the proposed land deal in Walton County _ involving thousands of acres _ could set a dangerous precedent.

It would be the first significant sale of Preservation 2000 land for development. The only previous sale was 40 acres for a school in Walton County last year.

"There's something unnatural about suggesting that we ought to be taking lands bought with Preservation 2000 environmental bond money and turning them over to developers," said George Willson, land acquisition director for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

"In other parts of the state, people are trying to get conservation projects on the (state acquisition) list that aren't even as environmentally significant as the land we're trying to get rid of here."

But many in the small but booming county between Panama City and Fort Walton Beach say the state already owns too much land there, and some of it should be returned to the private sector to bolster the local tax base.

Still others say the Preservation 2000 land sale proposal here is an isolated case, part of an innovative plan to create compact villages linked by parks. The model development plan for south Walton County, they say, is one of the best in the world.

Since 1992, Florida taxpayers have spent about $148-million in this county of 32,000 people. Most of the money has purchased about 20,000 acres of gorgeous beachfront, dunes and coastal lakes, a collection of public land called the South Walton Ecosystem project. It includes Topsail Hill (named for dunes that resemble billowing sails), Point Washington State Forest and Grayton Beach State Park, ranked in one survey as the best beach in the world.

The land represents Florida as it used to be, before the dunes were bulldozed for high rises and beachfront bars. Officials say South Walton's public lands, located near the trendy resort of Seaside, will lure visitors from all over the world.

But the massive public land buys have raised hackles among many locals.

"I think some of it should be released for development because it's taking away a huge portion of the county's tax base," said Van Ness Butler, a Grayton Beach Realtor whose family roots run deep here.

"We objected'

The original 1992 public land purchase in south Walton County was anything but ordinary. Usually, land buys under the state's Conservation and Recreation Lands program go through intensive planning and mapping. But this land _ part of a savings-and-loan fraud case _ was sold at government auction on the steps of the Walton County Courthouse.

In order to get the magnificent Topsail Hill beachfront, the state had to buy a package that included 18,000 acres of adjacent forest land.

"The deal was, you want Topsail, you get this, too," said Pete Mallison, director of the state lands program.

After the purchase, local officials went to Tallahassee and complained to Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet.

"When the state bought all the land, it was quite a surprise to the county," Butler said. "We objected."

The state now owns 20,000 of the 55,000 acres that make up south Walton County.

In response to local concerns, the Legislature appropriated about $1-million to fund a panel to study south Walton County. The new South Walton Conservation Development Trust, made up of local people and state experts, spent more than a year looking at ways to combine economic growth and environmental preservation.

They brought in top-notch experts, held citizen "visioning" workshops, mapped sensitive lands and pondered ways to develop a healthy economic base. The plan would create the kind of towns people say they want _ friendly places where people can walk to work and shop. All of it would be nestled among large chunks of public land for biking, hiking and horseback riding.

The trust also came up with the now-controversial "surplus land disposal" list. The trust recommended getting rid of some 6,400 acres, some of it isolated tracts of Point Washington pine woods. The money from the land sales would then go to buy land that is contiguous with the public forest and beaches. The trust said the lands would not be sold without deed restrictions governing what can be built there.

Profit or preservation?

But state environmentalists are not buying it, no matter how lofty the purpose.

"Lands that have been acquired with Preservation 2000 funds and have natural resource values should not be disposed of for development, period," said Manley Fuller, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "I think people who have speculative desires on the property have pushed this process."

Until now, Florida has not tried to sell any public lands bought under the Preservation 2000 program. The Department of Environmental Protection drafted a measure that paves the way for such sales in certain circumstances. It took two legislative sessions to get the measure passed, said Mallison, the state lands director.

Critics wonder who, exactly, would enforce any restrictions placed on Preservation 2000 lands sold in Walton County. Local officials have not adopted the trust's plan as law. And more than a decade after Florida's Growth Management Act was passed, Walton County still does not have a state-approved comprehensive plan.

Many people also wonder why the state feels pressure to sell public land here when the county is clearly booming. In recent years, affluent retirees have discovered south Walton County, and land values have skyrocketed. A Seaside house that cost $75,000 in 1981 could cost as much as $400,000 now. An interior lot in Grayton Beach has gone up from $8,000 to $150,000.

"There are 55,000 acres in south Walton County, and the state owns 20,000 acres now. That's still 35,000 acres out there" in private ownership, said Greg Brock, who runs the state's Conservation and Recreation Lands program.

"Most of the analyses show that public land in a county tends to attract more affluent people who build pricier homes and pay pricier taxes," he said. "The loss of land from the tax roll is often counterbalanced by the enhancement of taxable value on the nearby properties."

For now, any sale of Preservation 2000 lands in Walton County is being put off. Earlier this month, the Conservation and Recreation Lands committee was scheduled to vote on the land sale proposal, but decided to postpone any action until more hearings are held in Walton County and in Tallahassee.