Weeks after news that Gov. Rick Scott and Florida GOP leaders took secret hunting trips to Texas financed by Florida’s sugar industry, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers are pushing plans for a massive new development in rural Hendry County near the northwest edge of the Everglades.
The Sugar Hill Sector Plan envisions turning 43,313 acres — or more than 67 square miles — of sugar cane fields, citrus groves and pasture lands into a planned community featuring 18,000 residential units and 25 million square feet of space to accommodate manufacturing, warehousing, transportation services and other kinds of businesses.
Development would occur over the next 46 years, until 2060. No price tag for the project is mentioned in plan documents made public by Hendry County. Nor are financial arrangements discussed.
Maps indicate that the Sugar Hill property is part of 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar land that the state has an option to purchase through October 2015 at fair market value under the Everglades restoration land acquisition program. Changes to Sugar Hill’s current agricultural zoning could significantly drive up the price per acre.
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Various state agencies have been or will be involved in reviewing the giant project by the two Clewiston-based companies. They include Florida’s departments of Economic Opportunity, Transportation, Agriculture and Environmental Protection, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.
The plan for Sugar Hill, which documents show has been discussed with various state and local officials since July 2013, appears to be on a fast track. The plan was formally submitted to Hendry County on June 2. The county commission gave its initial thumbs-up last week by approving U.S. Sugar/Hilliard’s lengthy development application for transmittal to Tallahassee.
Under a law signed by Gov. Scott in 2011, the state’s sector planning program now lets local governments engage in long-term planning for large areas with minimal state interference. The same law abolished Florida’s Department of Community Affairs, which had overseen state growth management efforts and reviewed local comprehensive plans, and transferred its planning function to the newly created Department of Economic Opportunity.
The department had yet to receive the Sugar Hill application by late Tuesday.
A county planning and zoning document presented to commissioners before the Aug. 26 public hearing minimized the environmental impact of the Sugar Hill development. It says that an environmental analysis prepared by the sugar interests “confirmed that there are no regionally significant natural resources within the sector plan” area.
U.S. Sugar is looking for state support for the Sugar Hill plan in the wake of disclosures by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times in July that it financed hunting trips to Texas’ King Ranch for Gov. Scott and Republican leaders. They include Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam; former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park; Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, scheduled to become speaker in 2016; Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who had been set to become speaker this year until he lost his bid for reelection; and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
The newspapers reported that “since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.” The industry also paid for the licenses.
The Sugar Hill property — shorthand for U.S. Sugar/Hilliard — is described as adjacent to the Airglades Airport, Clewiston, and borders on the Glades County line.
According to the county’s planning and zoning department, it “will incentivize businesses and development companies to locate in Hendry County by removing any barrier that may exist with the current land-use designation. As important, this proposal would complement the future expansion of the Airglades International Airport.”
Airglades is a small, county-owned facility where British Royal Air Force cadets trained during World War II. Since 2010, the county has been seeking to sell the airport to private owners in order to turn it into a major hub for cargo shipments. The Federal Aviation Administration must approve any sale.
The airport is working with Airglades International Airport LLC, (AIA), which wants to buy and privatize the airport as part of a $400 million plan that would turn it into an international cargo hub by adding a new 12,000-foot runway. AIA’s directors include U.S. Sugar executive Malcolm S. “Bubba” Wade Jr. and Joe Marlin Hilliard, chairman of the Florida Sugar Cane League.
On Monday, following FAA approval, AIA took over management of Airglades, said AIA President Fred Ford. He said the company expects a decision allowing AIA to purchase the 2,800-acre airport property “within the next 12 months.” The price to be paid would depend on how many jobs are created, Ford said.
According to Ford, the fate of Sugar Hill, which owns much of the land that surrounds the airport, is tied largely to the success of Airglades.
“If the airport isn’t successful, it won’t happen,” Ford said. “Sugar Hill is what could happen if the airport is successful. … The sector plan could be just an interesting document.”
Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org.