Miami-Dade County

Water managers weigh putting South Florida lands up for sale

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.

The area also includes other important swaths of wild lands. One is the so-called East Coast Buffer, which winds from western Palm Beach County down through Miami-Dade along the border of Everglades National Park and was intended to preserve a transitional area between Southeast Florida’s sprawling suburbs and the marshes to the west. There are also sprawling wetlands in South Miami-Dade as well as some of the last remaining large chunks of undeveloped land along southern Biscayne Bay.

The district hasn’t yet identified specific Everglades parcels to formally consider for land swaps or to “surplus” for potential sale to private owners. But the most likely targets are isolated tracts in areas where plans for restoration projects have fallen through or been scaled back. Those include the Las Palmas area of west Miami-Dade, once known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area, as well as the Bird Drive basin east of Krome Avenue and north of Tamiami Trail, where the district owns a checkerboard of small wetland tracts, many of them overrun with exotic vegetation.

At a Wednesday workshop at the district’s headquarters in West Palm Beach, environmentalists urged water managers to preserve as much as possible and not undervalue land that might temporarily be choked by exotic vegetation. Even degraded lands provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife, help recharge ground water and control flooding, said Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society in Miami.

Land can easily be restored, she said, but “even just sitting there open land is incredibly valuable.”

Drew Martin of the Loxahatchee chapter of the Sierra Club urged the district to apply protective conservation deed restrictions to any land it may decide to give up to other agencies or counties.

“We forget, these lands were purchased for a reason and that was to provide a buffer for natural areas,’’ he said

Representatives from the U.S. Interior Department, Loxahatchee refuge and Miami-Dade County government also urged water managers to proceed cautiously.

Gwen Burzycki, a special-projects administrator for Miami-Dade’ environmental division, said both the county and district had invested a lot of time and money to protecting and managing wetlands.

“It would be a financial travesty to let these lands go after we have put so much effort into getting them into shape,’’ she said.

Ray Palmer, section leader of the district’s real estate division, said the process of deciding what and how to surplus any parcels was complicated. For starters, at least two dozen different sources of state, federal and county funding have been used to acquire land over the decades, and many , from the Florida Save Our Everglades trust fund to assorted other state, county and federal programs. Many of those programs came with covenants that restrict how land can be used, swapped or sold and could require approval from other agencies.

The district staff intends to come up with an initial list of proposals for the Everglades region in August and, after another period of public comment, present a final list to the district’s governing board in September. A list for a region north of Lake Okeechobee presented to the board last month included some 6,200 acres of land for disposal.

Water managers said they have no target number they are shooting for. Palmer said he expects a very small percentage of land in the Everglades region to make the list.