December 13, 2016
Water district gets tough on all the wrong people | Opinion
If a public agency must proclaim that it isn't plotting to do harm, there's already a problem.
The South Florida Water Management District had to do that twice in the last month. The district issued a "statement of principles" on behalf of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach and defended its intention to sell land in Palm Beach County's Agricultural Reserve Area.
Given the source, however, such reassurances aren't reassuring. The region's most important public agency engenders suspicion, not trust.
Last week, the Palm Beach County Commission discussed the district's demand that the county agree to sell nearly 600 acres in the reserve. The district owns 60 percent, and the county 40 percent. Pero Family Farms leases the land, paying a combined $300,000 a year.
The county and district bought the property in 2000. The county's share came from $100 million in bonds that voters approved the previous year as part of a plan to preserve farming in the reserve. Though any sale would restrict use to agriculture through a conservation easement, a majority vote of the seven-member commission could grant a land-use change that would allow development.
Such an action would threaten the entire 20,000-acre reserve and undercut the will of the voters, who approved the preservation plan by a 2-to-1 margin. Though county staff members and some commissioners praised the potential protections, Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center said, "You cannot preserve land by selling it."
The district wanted to use the land for a reservoir, but now considers the land surplus and has suggested that it might sue to force a sale, which could mean no conservation easement. "Nice little Agricultural Reserve Area ya got there. Sure would be too bad if something happened to it."
Why the strong-arm? Gov. Rick Scott appoints district board members, and his office has ordered them to cut taxes. Even after a 30 percent budget cut in 2011, the district has to balance its books using reserves — $226 million last year alone. So the district is short on cash.
It would take five votes on the county commission to approve a sale. The votes aren't there. The commission could buy out the district for $9 million. That would depend on the district being willing to cooperate. District board member Melanie Peterson last week denied any wish to sue, but added that the county would "be in charge" after any sale. "Maybe they need to be reminded of that."
Peterson was reading from the governor's script: Blame someone else. Which brings us to the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge.
Last August, the district began the process to end its contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the 144,000-acre reserve, which is home to birds, alligators and humans who watch them to escape urbanized South Florida. The district claims that the feds aren't doing enough to control an invasive plant — Old World Fern. Only if the Fish and Wildlife Service secures $25 million from Congress over five years will the district reconsider.
On Oct. 3, Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Cynthia Dohner responded to the district's executive director, Peter Antonacci. Dohner noted that since the contract began in 2002 her agency has diverted money from other areas to battle Old World Fern and other exotics. And Scott's fellow Republicans, who control Congress, run the government practically month by month.
As with the farmland, why is the district strong-arming? As Dohner points out, if the district ends the contract, the refuge "will not have the same protected status" under which the district must control the quality of water entering the refuge from nearby farms. The district also could allow other uses that restrict public access.
In that "Statement of Principles," the district pledged to do none of those bad things. Such a pledge might mean more if the governor's political action committee hadn't accepted yet another contribution last month — $25,000 this time — from U.S. Sugar to go with the previous $400,000.
A year ago, the governor worked in secret to fire Antonacci's predecessor. Given that record, there is little reason to believe the agency's public reassurances. We must hope that the next governor gives the district the money it needs and a new attitude.
Randy Schultz is the former editorial page editor of The Palm Beach Post. He also blogs for Boca Raton Magazine. His email address is email@example.com