High Court Splits Ruling on Everglades Finance Plan

By: Michael Peltier
By: Michael Peltier

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 18, 2010 --

In what may have more significant impact on future actions, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved the use of a financing plan under which the South Florida Water Management District bought some Everglades land from U.S. Sugar, but it may not be able to use the same type of financing going forward.

In a unanimous ruling, the state’s highest court upheld the district’s ability to use $536 million in certificates of participation, bond-like financing tools paid by district landowners, to purchase the land. Initially, the district had intended to purchase a much larger parcel of land, but the down economy shrunk the deal.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Florida filed suit against the sale, when the proposed transaction was for 73,000 acres, arguing that the water management district could not use the financing vehicles because the project served no public purpose. The district has since bought just under 27,000 acres with cash.

While disagreeing with the tribe and saying there was a public purpose for the purchase of the first part of the deal, the court ruled that the state could not use the certificates to pay for a $50 million option agreement on another 107,000 acres, saying the three-year agreement did not produce an immediate benefit to taxpayers or the state.

“Because no public purpose has been proven as to the land that is the subject of the option, no public purpose has been shown for the option either,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote for the court.

Citing the economic downturn and state fiscal woes, the board voted in August to move forward with the $197 million purchase of a 27,000 acre tract from the sugar grower, about a third of the size of the 78,000-acre parcel previously sought by Gov. Charlie Crist, who touted the proposal as a way to boost the re-plumbing effort in the Everglades.

"We are pursuing the acquisition with the fiscal responsibility expected of Florida's leaders and stewards of the environment," Crist said in a statement. "This acreage will provide important opportunities for water storage and treatment and better revive, restore and preserve one of America's greatest natural treasures - the Everglades."

The Miccosukee Tribe and a group of U.S. Sugar competitors have opposed the purchase, saying the deal would harm the restoration efforts. Officials haven't released the ultimate plan for the land - and instead plan to lease it back to U.S. Sugar for now.

The competitors - including companies affiliated with Florida Crystals, the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, and Roth Farms, also say currently planned projects will suffer because of the money that will have to go to the purchase.

Environmental groups on Thursday applauded the court’s ruling, saying it provides the state with the means necessary to purchase future parcels as they become available.

“This will have a significant impact going forward because the court has ruled that this type of financing can be used in the future for restoration efforts,” said Thom Rumberger, chairman of the Tallahassee-based Everglades Trust, which supported the purchase.


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