Deadline questions arise about water district-Florida Crystals land swap

A year after environmental groups and state agencies declared a truce in a 25-year-old Everglades restoration lawsuit, the legal ink-slinging has resumed with environmental groups claiming that the South Florida Water Management District has missed a deadline for a key restoration project and the state agency charged with enforcement won’t punish the district.

According to environmental groups, the district failed a close on a land deal by Sept. 30 — a deadline set in court documents and in permits that require the district to acquire 4,535 acres owned by Florida Crystals and Gladeview Holdings for a restoration project. The district blamed environmentalists, saying it missed the deadline because the Florida Wildlife Federation filed a legal challenge to a proposed land swap that the district was negotiating with Florida Crystals and Gladeview.

In court documents, the federation claimed that the 30-year, no-bid lease extensions on 7,600 acres of state-owned land that Crystals demanded as part of the land swap were illegal. The group claimed that allowing Crystals to continue farming on land in the Everglades agricultural area for another 30 years was contrary to the state’s efforts to reduce the amount of pollution going into the Everglades, including nutrients from fertilizers used on crops. It also claimed the no-bid leases were illegal.

The district pushed hard for the leases. Appearing before Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet in January, former district Executive Director Melissa Meeker said the district needed the cabinet’s immediate approval of the leases with Crystals so it could move forward with the land swap.

The wildlife federation eventually dropped its challenge but the district claimed the legal wrangling delayed negotiations for seven months and caused the district to miss the Sept. 30 deadline. The state Department of Environmental Protection, charged with enforcement, agreed with the district and extended the deadline to Jan. 30.

“It is regrettable that this legal challenge stood in the way of timely progress on Everglades restoration,” Drew Bartlett, the deputy secretary for water policy with the Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in an Oct. 21 letter to Blake Guillory, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

Even with the new deadline, other questions about the land swap remain — especially about the value of the land being exchanged.

In 2009 the district paid $78.3 million for the 8,712 acres it now hopes to swap with Florida Crystals. The land, near Pahokee, was part of the 26,800 acres the district purchased from U.S. Sugar for $197 million in August 2010. Although it was isolated from the bulk of the land in the deal, which was located south of Lake Okeechobee, district officials said they would eventually sell or trade the land.

At the time, two appraisers said the land contained very rich, productive muck. One appraiser found the land “represent(s) some of the best agricultural lands found within the Everglades Agricultural Area” and determined the land was worth between $69.5 million and $78.3 million.

Four years later, as part of the current land deal, two appraisers — including one who performed the 2009 appraisal — found the land had dropped in value. Their May 8 appraisals, conducted during the legal wrangling with the Florida Wildlife Federation, determined the land was now worth between $63 million and $68 million. Little mention was made of the quality of the soil.

As for the land owned by Crystals and Gladeview, appraisals dated July 29 valued the Crystals land between $18.4 million and $18.7 million and the Gladeview land between $23.9 million and $24.6 million. That means the district would be trading land worth as much as $25.3 million more than the Crystals and Gladeview land combined.

The district is willing to accept the difference because of costs Crystals claims it will incur to move its operations, install pumps and improve and upgrade irrigation. Those expenses are known as the “cost to cure” problems that the buyer will incur.

In addition, the district will pay Gladeview $5.9 million cash: $2.4 million to set-up operations on land it will acquire from Crystals as part of the swap and $3.5 million for agreeing to the deal rather than forcing the district to take the land by eminent domain.

Whether the district can close the deal before the Jan. 30 deadline is unknown. The district’s architect of the deal, Assistant Executive Director Ernie Barnett, has announced plans to retire on Jan. 1 and is no longer involved in the negotiations.

Further delay could also result if the district asks for new appraisals before the deal is sealed. Under the district’s land acquisition policy, a certified appraisal must be dated within 120 days of a sale or exchange of surplus land. The appraisals of the district land, dated May 8, are 206-days old. The July 29 appraisals of the Crystals and Gladeview lands are 124 days old.

District officials planned to ask the governing board to approve the land swap at its Nov. 14 meeting. However, the item was not on the agenda despite a resolution passed by the board in October to”endeavor to complete a binding written exchange agreement” by its November meeting.

The board is scheduled to meet twice before Jan. 30. Agendas for those meetings are still being drafted. The district could face fines of $1,000 day if it misses another deadline, Bartlett warned in his Oct. 21 letter.

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