In what may have a more significant impact on future actions, the Florida Supreme Court last week approved the financing plan needed to purchase 27,000 acres of land in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar.
In a unanimous ruling, the state’s highest court upheld the South Florida Water Management District’s ability to use $536 million in certificates of participation, bond-like financing tools paid by district landowners, to buy 73,000 acres of land from the sugar company that at one time was trying to unload more than 180,000 to the state.
The Miccosukee Tribe of Florida filed suit against the sale, arguing that the water management district could not use the financing vehicles because the project served no public purpose.
In a partial victory, however, the court ruled that the state could not use the certificates to pay for a $50 million option agreement on another 107,000 acres, saying the three-year agreement did not produce an immediate benefit to taxpayers or the state.
“Because no public purpose has been proven as to the land that is the subject of the option, no public purpose has been shown for the option either,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote for the majority.
The court’s decision has been rendered somewhat moot, at least for now. In August, the water district’s board of governors approved a smaller purchase in the name of Everglades restoration.
Citing the economic downturn and state fiscal woes, the board voted to move forward with the $197 million purchase of a 27,000-acre tract from the sugar grower, about a third of the size of the 78,000-acre parcel previously sought by Gov. Charlie Crist, who has touted the proposal as a way to boost the re-plumbing effort in the Everglades.
“We are pursuing the acquisition with the fiscal responsibility expected of Florida’s leaders and stewards of the environment,” Crist said in a statement. “This acreage will provide important opportunities for water storage and treatment and better revive, restore and preserve one of America’s greatest natural treasures - the Everglades.”
The Miccosukee and a group of U.S. Sugar competitors have opposed the purchase, saying the deal would harm the restoration efforts. Officials haven’t released the ultimate plan for the land, and instead plan to lease it back to U.S. Sugar for now.
The competitors _ including companies affiliated with Florida Crystals, the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, and Roth Farms _ also say currently planned projects will suffer because of the money that must go to the purchase.
Environmental groups Thursday applauded the court’s ruling, saying it provides the state with the means necessary to buy future tracks as they become available.
“This will have a significant impact going forward because the court has ruled that this type of financing can be used in the future for restoration efforts,” said Thom Rumberger, attorney for the Everglades Trust, which supported the purchase.
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