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Florida is buying $300 million in land. It’s for the environment — and developers.

It’s a historic win for the environment, but “we’re not going to pop the champagne just yet,” one environmentalist said.
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[ pfarrell@miamiherald.com ]
Published Jul. 26
Updated Jul. 26

TALLAHASSEE — One of the rare bipartisan highlights of Florida’s legislative session this year was the decision to spend $300 million buying up land for conservation.

Republicans, Democrats and environmentalists called it a boon for the environment, helping save thousands of acres of land in Florida’s delicate wildlife corridors from development.

The result could be a boon to landowners and developers as well.

The fine print in this year’s budget includes a stipulation that some environmentalists fear could spur development in the state’s wetlands.

In a reversal of the state’s current land-buying policy, lawmakers this year wrote in the budget that anyone whose development rights are purchased with the $300 million can also use their land for wetland “mitigation banking” — an obscure environmental program that some environmentalists believe is bad for the state’s wetlands.

Mitigation banking is used by developers, the Florida Department of Transportation and other builders to offset damage their projects cause to the environment. When a developer tears up acres of wetland for a new project, they often spend money at a mitigation bank, which is usually a plot of rehabilitated land nearby. The contribution, in theory, offsets the developer’s original damage.

The fact that state lawmakers are allowing mitigation banking on land it’s already buying for conservation — something it hasn’t allowed in its Florida Forever land-buying program — surprised both environmentalists and those in the mitigation banking industry.

It’s also dampened some of the enthusiasm for an otherwise historic and long-sought victory for Florida’s environment.

“We’re not going to pop the champagne just yet,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group. “$300 million going into Florida Forever versus $300 million going to wetland mitigation banking is very different.”

How much land will end up as mitigation banks, and what it will mean for Florida’s wetlands, won’t be known for years, after the state’s Department of Environmental Protection starts buying up development rights through easements. One environmental group said it’s not worried about it.

But environmentalists are correct that lawmakers deliberately allowed the use of mitigation banking to spur development, said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the state’s environmental budget.

Albritton, whose district includes eight counties in rural central Florida, said his goal was to balance the needs of the environment, land owners and the local economy.

Some of the most pristine parts of the state will be permanently saved from development, he said. Landowners, including farmers, could get paid twice: once by the state for the development rights, and again if the land is used as a mitigation bank.

And additional mitigation banks means more opportunities for development. Despite the state’s economy booming the last few decades, many towns in rural Florida have remained stagnant or shrunk.

“It’s a real problem, and unless you live in rural Florida, you don’t really see it,” Albritton said.

Albritton’s district also appears to have a shortage of available mitigation credits. When the Department of Transportation went to buy credits in his district to offset the impact of a Central Polk Parkway extension, it had to find credits outside the area.

The conservation money, coming from American Rescue Plan dollars, is part of a plan passed by lawmakers this year to preserve thousands of acres of land, with a focus on preserving paths to food, shelter and mates for animals like the endangered Florida panther.

Environmentalists, including the National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward, have been working for years to protect those wildlife corridors, which culminated in lawmakers’ unanimous passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act this year.

Related: A famed nature photographer weighs in on the lessons of nature

“Land conservation is an essential tool for environmental protection, and the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act will further our already successful efforts,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a ceremonial bill signing last week.

The bill also had help from Tampa tech billionaire Arnie Bellini, who hired a top lobbyist and gave more than $200,000 to three lawmakers, including to Albritton and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, ahead of this year’s legislative session.

To make the corridors a reality, lawmakers added $100 million to acquire land through the state’s Forever program, which buys land for conservation and recreation but has been starved of funds by lawmakers over the last decade.

Lawmakers also added another $300 million to get land, but assigned the money in a separate part of the budget, with a specific order: that the Department of Environmental Protection “not restrict a landowner’s ability” to also use the land for mitigation banking.

Since the 1990s, federal policy has required a developer to replace any wetlands it destroys. That spurred an explosion in mitigation bankers — individuals or groups that buy swampland, or former swampland, and restore it by removing invasive plants and turning it back into wetlands. Those bankers then sell “credits” of the land to developers.

When a developer buys those credits, the money can count as replacing the wetland the developer would destroy. Today, there are more than 100 mitigation banks in the state.

While it’s supposed to be an equal split, mitigation banks aren’t always successful. Sometimes the banks are dry land, not wetlands. Environmentalists say they need more regulation. (The state once approved a mitigation bank that the developer wanted to use to chop 40 acres of mangroves to create a better view on his property.)

Some environmentalists point to the state’s shrinking wetlands as evidence of a failed state program. Lee and Collier counties alone have lost more than 30,000 acres of wetlands since 1996, said Beth Alvi, policy director for Audubon Florida. The group manages its own wetlands mitigation bank in the area, but doesn’t believe mitigation banking works well without stricter implementation of the state’s wetland permitting program.

“If our public lands are going to be considered for mitigation, it should be a red flag and we should be concerned about it,” Alvi said.

The Department of Environmental Protection told the Times/Herald that it will approve mitigation banking “if appropriate” when it buys the development rights for conservation. The department does not expect mitigation banks to be permitted on the land after the contracts are signed, a spokesperson said.

Temperince Morgan, executive director of the Florida chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which also manages its own conservation bank, said the organization did its own analysis of the budget language and decided it was comfortable with it.

“We don’t see it creating any significant obstacles to getting good conservation done and protecting the corridor,” she said.

Albritton said he understands that mitigation banking might not “work perfectly” in all situations, but it’s a system that could help keep thousands of acres of undeveloped Florida stay that way.

“That is a very romantic proposition to me,” he said.