TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott was handed a rare setback Tuesday as Cabinet members overruled him and voted to preserve one of the last surviving ranches in central Florida.
Scott said the lowest appraised value of the property was too high. But his three fellow Republicans on the Cabinet disagreed, including Scott's strongest ally, Attorney General Pam Bondi, who switched her vote after an explanation of the arcane appraisal system and a forceful plea from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The Cabinet voted to spend $4.1 million to protect 1,300 acres under a conservation easement in which agricultural lands are protected through payments to landowners and restrictions on commercial development.
The Kilbee Ranch, in a rural enclave of Seminole County north of Orlando, was acquired by E.H. Kilbee in the 1880s. Vestiges of a hunting camp and a century-old sawmill remain on the property, along with 350 head of cattle. Deer, turkey, coyotes and black bears inhabit the ranch, which borders a state forest and is near two rivers.
With the ranch increasingly hemmed in by subdivisions and shopping centers, Kilbee's family wanted to honor his wish to save the ranch and prevent commercial development.
Kilbee's great-granddaughter, Diane Gaff, a school reading specialist from Cross City, said the family could have made a lot more money by selling the ranch to a developer.
"I was surprised," Gaff said after the vote. "I just thought the governor was more for this program, for preserving what we have, so I was shocked."
The state usually seeks two appraisals on easements.
Scott opposes paying more than 90 percent of the lowest of the two appraisals.
"If we don't live up to some standard, we're just going to keep paying more and more money," Scott said. "I'm okay with 90 percent of the lowest appraisal. That's as high as I'll go."
Putnam said the state's own policy is to pay 90 percent or less of the highest appraisal, not the lowest, which in the Kilbee case fell about midway between the two figures. The two appraisals for the Kilbee Ranch were for $4.755 million and $4.5 million, and the negotiated price was $4.095 million.
"I personally think that we're not going to able to accomplish all the things we want to accomplish if we're going to pay people less money than the lowest appraisal," Putnam said.
Putnam called Scott's view "unrealistic" and could make it harder to protect shrinking agricultural lands in Florida.
The gap between what the Cabinet approved and what Scott wanted was about $50,000. The federal government will pay $1 million of the $4 million, which equates to about $3,100 per acre.
Audubon Florida pushed for the ranch easement. Its lobbyist, Eric Draper, said it was "unbelievable" that Putnam persuaded Bondi to change her vote, after a private talk between Bondi and her Cabinet aide.
Draper said Scott's views about appraisals are wrong.
"Trying to squeeze a ranch family doesn't make any sense at all," Draper said. "The ranchers were in the room. Can you imagine how they felt, seeing the governor vote down their issue?"
With little debate, Scott and the Cabinet also approved a second easement for $3.8 million to protect the JB Ranch tract in east Collier County, a panther habitat north of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The appraised value in that case met Scott's goal of 90 percent of the lowest appraisal figure.
The ranch's owner and operator, Aliese Priddy of Immokalee, is a Scott appointee to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Priddy personally donated $500 to Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work, in 2013.
They are the 19th and 20th conservation easements since Florida created the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program in 2001. The program is part of the forestry services unit in Putnam's Department of Agriculture.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.