Miami Herald


U.S. Sugar deal is 'bad business,' water managers told


Water managers were urged to take a step back and reassess the $1.34 billion Everglades land deal between the state and U.S. Sugar.


By Curtis Morgan


December 3, 208


Competing farmers, rural community leaders and even environmentalists urged water managers Tuesday not to rush into approving what some called a ''sweetheart'' $1.34 billion bid to buy U.S. Sugar's fields for Everglades restoration.

The proposal drew a barrage of questions -- and few answers -- during the first of three meetings the South Florida Water Management District plans before a scheduled Dec. 16 vote.

Other farmers complained that generous lease terms would pump U.S. Sugar, already the state's largest grower, into a ''super competitor'' and imperil smaller operators.

''This is a bad business deal,'' said George Wedgworth, president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

Environmentalists argued that it would keep much of the 300 square miles of land off-limits for restoration for too long -- at least seven years, potentially more.

''We support the acquisition,'' Thom Rumberger, an attorney for The Everglades Trust, said at the meeting held at the water district's West Palm Beach headquarters. ``We don't necessarily support this deal.''

And some dozen Glades residents pushed to postpone any decision until the state develops a plan to preserve or replace lost farm jobs.

''This could literally bring us to our knees,'' said Clewiston Mayor Mali Chamness. ``If you don't have the answers, do not proceed.''

Board members didn't indicate whether they would put off the vote, mandated by a take-it-or-leave-it deadline in the contract, but they also had many questions.

''I don't even know if it's a deal we can afford,'' said board member Mike Collins, an Islamorada fishing guide.

The district, supported by property taxes in the 16 counties it oversees, intends to bankroll the deal by floating bonds at a time when credit costs are increasing and tax revenues declining.

Still, board chair Eric Buermann, a Miami attorney, said the deal, proposed by Gov. Charlie Crist in June after months of secret talks with U.S. Sugar, presented a unique opportunity. The district intends to use the land, and possibly other tracts it may acquire with land swamps, to build reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes to help restore the flow of clean water to the Everglades.

''It's the only land we can acquire that is available on the planet for our purposes,'' said Buermann. ``Location, location, location.''

One major source of concern was a lease-back that would allow the company to continue farming much of its land at $50 an acre for six years and for free for a seventh year. Going lease rates run about $225 an acre.

In a letter to the district, the cooperative said its members would be willing to pay three times as much -- an offer it argued would help offset costs to taxpayers.