TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Wednesday rejected environmentalists' opposition and approved no-bid, 30-year lease extensions with two agriculture companies for their use of state lands in exchange for other property needed for Everglades restoration.
The four officials unanimously agreed the extensions on about 14,000 acres in Palm Beach County for vegetable grower A. Duda and Sons Inc. and sugar cane company Florida Crystals Corp. are in the public interest.
In return, the South Florida Water Management District will be able to obtain lands owned by the two companies for Everglades projects, through purchase and swap, without having to resort to condemnation, Department of Environmental Regulation Secretary Herschel Vinyard told the panel.
"This path was selected because it's less expensive and we can proceed to restoration in a much quicker fashion," Vinyard said.
Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, and Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said 30 years is too long to extend the leases.
Fuller also urged the panel to delay action for about a month to continue negotiating so the state could seek a provision that would ensure it could take back leased lands for restoration purposes with a three-year notice.
"We would like the state-owned leased lands to benefit restoration objectives, and we would like you to preserve, to the greatest extent that you can, your options to achieve this objective," Fuller said.
He gave the panel a letter asking for the delay from his organization as well as 1000 Friends of Florida and the Everglades Law Center.
Draper focused on the Duda lease, saying state and federal taxpayers are spending billions to clean up phosphorus from fertilizer that flows into the Everglades from the agricultural lands. He said the extension should include a provision limiting the use of fertilizer.
"It's your right and it's your duty to insist they maximize their effort to reduce the impact on the land," Draper said. "The lease extensions preclude your ability to insist on that activity."
South Florida Water Management District executive director Melissa Meeker called the extensions a good deal for the state and said she couldn't delay the land acquisition. She said the leased lands are well outside currently planned restoration project areas.
"We have time to grab those lands if we decided we need them," Meeker said. "We have enough to do. Let's just get in the ground and start moving dirt."
Two competing agriculture companies also objected to extending the leases without competitive bidding, but they did not appear before the panel.
Duda has agreed to sell the district 638 acres in Glades County near Lake Hipochee for $1.9 million, which is only 44 percent of its appraised value, in return for the extension on leases due to expire in 2016 and 2018. The company also has agreed to give the district a four-year option on 2,489 acres at their full appraised value, which is $16.9 million.
Florida Crystals has agreed to swap 4,700 acres for an equal amount of state acreage in exchange for extensions on four leases expiring in 2015 and one in 2016. The company will receive a portion of 27,000 acres the state bought from a competitor, U.S. Sugar Corp., in 2010.