Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Not another bait and switch

 

OUR OPINION: State’s plan to sell ‘surplus’ public land to buy other ‘better’ land raises valid concerns

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Beaches, walking trails, wetlands meant to clean stormwater before it enters Florida’s aquifers. As many as 5,331 acres of land in Florida could be on the auction block for developers to gobble up, all in an effort to raise $50 million to buy “better” land to protect. We are not making this up.

The political motivations are simple. It’s a way for the governor and legislators, who approved his haphazard plan, to say they care about Florida’s environment while continuing to rob the trust fund, meant to raise money to buy such lands and instead using that money for their own pet projects.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that in a state with millions of acres of protected land, from beach shorelines to swamps and forests, that there would be some acres that aren’t as valuable to the environment, water quality or wildlife.

The problem with the state’s plan, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times and published in the Herald on Thursday, is the way the state Department of Environmental Protection went about creating the potential list — in a rush. (To find the proposed sites of the state’s “surplus” land go to http://www.dep.state.fl.us/lands/assessment/Maps.htm)

Another problem: The $50 million figure is not based on any scientific rationale as to the environmental value of those lands.

At a July 15 meeting by the Surplus Lands advisory group, a consultant pushed the group to change the criteria of what would qualify to reach the magic $50 million because the group was coming up short. Among the sensitive parcels on the proposed list is the Green Swamp, at the headwaters of four rivers in Central Florida, which is land that is crucial to protect an aquifer that supplies fresh water.

At least 145 acres in the Oleta River State Park in Miami-Dade County were pulled from the state’s proposed “for sale” list. Good call, as this park contains the largest coastal mangrove forest in North Biscayne Bay. Deed restrictions made it impossible for the state to sell.

But there are at least 17 parcels in the Keys, along U.S. 1 from Tavernier to Plantation Key, that remain on the state’s list, and that should concern every South Floridian who values the rare hardwood tropical hammock in that area, which wildlife, including rare butterflies, count on to survive.

Remember Florida Forever? That program, along with Preservation 2000, bought more than 2.5 million acres — part of 10 million acres that are managed for conservation. The state was spending up to $300 million a year to buy environmental treasures. Under both Republican and Democratic governors and legislatures, Florida became a nationally recognized model for protecting land.

The Great Recession put the brakes on that legacy and the state’s land-buying program, which had used a small portion from real estate closing costs for a trust fund to buy environmentally sensitive land. Instead, legislators this year offered $20 million, plus $50 million from the sale of surplus land.

This latest attempt to sell some land to buy “better” land seems to be another classic bait and switch. The Cabinet will be making a decision by next year on the land sales. In the meantime, the DEP plans to hold meetings throughout Florida.

Speak up. You can start by emailing state officials at ARC_mailinglist@dep.state.fl.us and let them know we’re on to this bait and switch.

With a recovering economy, the trust fund should be used for what it was intended: protecting Florida’s treasures.

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