Big Sugar's big plans are coming into sharper focus. U.S. Sugar and its allies are not just interested in influencing an upcoming water policy debate in Tallahassee. They are quietly pursuing big development plans on land the state has an option to buy to protect the Everglades. No wonder U.S. Sugar has been organizing secret hunting trips to Texas for Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and top legislators. And no wonder the politicians are reluctant to talk about hunting with sugar interests intent on increasing the value of land that taxpayers could wind up buying at inflated prices.
It's an insider's game that Republican leaders enabled and Big Sugar exploits, and it's an outrageous betrayal to Floridians.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported, changes pushed through during Scott's first year in office to decentralize land-use planning for major projects have worked just the way critics warned. U.S. Sugar and an adjoining property owner, Hilliard Brothers of Florida, appear on the verge of winning approval to develop 67 square miles of sugar land southwest of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County — population 39,000. Just how gargantuan is this so-called "sector plan"? It calls for 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of commercial space and industry in one of the state's least-populated areas.
Under previous governors, such ambitions would have required significant state review as "developments of regional impact" on infrastructure such as water supply, roads, schools and the environment. But under Scott, the state's growth management agency was abolished and its mission largely handed off to local governments. That lessens the likelihood anyone will consider how to comprehensively plan and pay for the infrastructure such massive developments require.
In economically depressed Hendry County, the U.S. Sugar/Hilliard proposal received scant review and little opposition before unanimous approval by county commissioners. Now it only needs the support of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the economic development agency Scott created. Not much suspense there. The department has not rejected a single sector plan.
Should U.S. Sugar and its partner win, they won't necessarily need to turn a shovel of dirt to see their fortunes grow: Just winning development rights on the property will significantly increase the land value. And that will greatly increase the cost to taxpayers if the state exercises options to buy U.S. Sugar land. The state paid for the 10-year option in 2010 in anticipation it might want to restore the historic water flow of the Everglades to ease contamination that occurs from heavily polluted Lake Okeechobee.
The pieces are falling into place now. It's clearer why a year before U.S. Sugar and Hillibrand began their formal development planning, U.S. Sugar bought a hunting lease on the famous King Ranch in Texas from Joe Marlin Hilliard Sr. and began inviting Florida's top politicians. As Pittman colleague Michael Van Sickler revealed, U.S. Sugar has donated more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2011 for at least 20 unspecified weekend trips. The dates of those trips line up within days of more than a dozen politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses. The trips are on top of $2.2 million U.S. Sugar and its officers have donated to Republicans in the 2014 election cycle. Democrats have received $132,000. King Ranch guests — from Scott to Putnam to outgoing House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli — have refused to discuss who they visited with at King Ranch or what was discussed. A U.S. Sugar spokeswoman told Pittman that the Hendry County sector plan was not on the agenda. Not that anyone without a vested interest can confirm that. Politicians and special interests long ago figured out how to exploit campaign finance laws and deny any direct connection between big checks, fancy hunting trips and public policy. After all, that would smack of corruption. But it's still possible, with enough information culled from public records, to connect the dots.