The South Florida Water Management District, one of the state’s largest landowners with some 1.5 million acres ranging from wild banks of the restored Kissimmee River to bird-covered marshes at the southern end of Miami-Dade County, is pondering unloading some of its vast holdings.
Environmentalists are closely watching what the district is calling a “land assessment process,” worried that an agency that has been forced to slash its budget over the past few years by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature may shed important acreage that could shrink wildlife habitat, compromise Everglades restoration projects or, worse, wind up in the hands of developers.
The district’s initial assessment, for example, includes 209 acres along Old Cutler Road bordering Biscayne Bay in Cutler Bay, which includes a 138-acre chunk the district purchased for $24.5 million less than three years ago to protect it from pending conversion into suburbia.
“Are we really going to get into the business of the South Florida Water Management District selling land fronting Biscayne Bay to a private developer?’’ said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida.
Water managers insist that’s not the intention and say they expect to keep the vast majority of the lands. One goal is to transfer or swap parcels to other government agencies, where they would continue to be used as conservation or recreation areas. The district, for instance, is negotiating transferring ownership of the 3,300-acre-plus Strazzulla wetlands in Palm Beach County to the bordering Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
“Clearly, we would like to see that lands bought with public money continue to be used in some public fashion,’’ said Tommy Strowd, the district’s deputy executive director.
But water managers also won’t rule out that some scattered tracts that no longer serve useful purposes may wind up for sale to private bidders — but only after another round of more thorough evaluation and appraisals, public comment and approval from the agency’s governing board.
Lawmakers ordered the state’s water-management districts to slash property tax rates by nearly a third several years ago, but Strowd said the district is not pursuing the assessment as a money maker — though it could wind up saving millions in maintenance costs.
It comes, he said, as part of an initiative ordered by Scott for every state agency to analyze whether public lands they manage fulfill “core missions.” In the case of the district, that’s defined as flood protection along with maintaining water supply, water quality and the ecological health of natural areas.
Some of the district’s parcels are clearly a poor fit — like the graceful home and 16-acre estate of former state lawmaker Edna Pearce Lockett along the Kissimmee River in Highlands County, which the district wound up with as part of a 1993 deal to acquire 423 surrounding acres. But other agencies have since passed on offers to take it over, largely because of the expense of maintaining it.
The district is initially analyzing only half its land, about 750,000 acres it owns outright without any sort of easements or other complicating restrictions. The biggest chunk lies in the Everglades region, which covers much of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County and includes an array of critical restoration and clean-up projects. Some are already constructed, such as the massive artificial marshes used for cleaning up farm pollution, but many others are in the works or awaiting future approval and funding.