Florida halts sale of conservation land

By By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
Published On: Mar 03 2014 12:28:33 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Falling short of a $50 million goal set by lawmakers, state environmental officials have changed focus and won't sell pieces of conservation land to help raise money for the Florida Forever program.

The state Department of Environmental Protection now plans to raise money for future Florida Forever purchases by selling sites such as the closed A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana and potentially other non-conservation land.

The sale of the hospital site is set to go before Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet on Thursday.

The state agency announced the shift in policy late Friday after six months whittling a list of parcels --- from among the state’s inventory of more than 3 million acres of publicly owned conservation land --- to determine which could be sold without impacting overall environmentally sensitive sites. The issue became controversial in places such as Polk County, where the state raised the possibility of selling part of an area known as Green Swamp.

"I’m thankful for the efforts of our staff, who conducted many public meetings and sought public comment to make this a transparent process," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said in a release. "We will continue to assess our land, determine what should be sold and we are excited about the possibility of selling non-conservation land to fund conservation land purchases to protect our springs, water resources and buffer military bases."

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, praised the decision that he noted "ended up where it should have been all along."

"One positive thing that has come out of this is that Floridians care deeply about our conservation lands, and this process has demonstrated clearly is that Florida's public-conservation lands should remain in public hands for conservation and sustainable nature-based recreation," Fuller responded in an email.

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Patrick Gillespie said the new focus will be on selling unused prison, hospital and state buildings.

The first example of the new emphasis is A.G. Holley, a tuberculosis hospital closed by lawmakers in 2012 after six decades in operation.

Southeast Legacy Investments, a land development and construction company, has offered $15.6 million for 80 acres at the hospital site, according to the Cabinet meeting agenda. The sale has been recommended for approval by state staff.

The surplus land-sale program was established by lawmakers in 2013 to add to $20 million they set aside in the budget for future conservation land purchases through the Florida Forever fund. The hope was to raise an additional $50 million for the purchase of land to protect springs, improve water quality and water quantity, or to serve as buffers for military bases.

The initial list of 169 sites, combined for roughly 5,300 acres from state parks and watersheds, drew fire from conservationists for including ecologically important wetlands, submerged lands, and space for wildlife habitat.

Shaved down in October to 77 parcels that totaled 3,405 acres, there was still displeasure with the proposed sites.

While most remaining parcels on the list were under 10 acres, the list continued to include the 2,638.3 acres within the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, known as the Green Swamp Area.

The Polk County Commission asked for Green Swamp to be removed, as the area contains the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hillsborough and Withlacoochee.

As it became apparent the sale of environmental sites would fail to meet the $50 million mark, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, slammed the program in January as a “disaster.”

"This is just a charade that we're going to sell land and we're going to use it to buy land and replace a program that was a very popular program (Florida Forever and its predecessor) put in place by Gov. (Bob) Martinez in 1990 and kept going by Gov. (Jeb) Bush,” Latvala said during an appearance by DEP officials before the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.

In Friday’s release, the DEP noted that the program has "significantly increased" staff’s understanding of the land owned by the state and management issues; "an important factor given that government owns about one-third of all land in Florida."

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