Sunshine State News

August 23, 2016


ADHD Policymaking and the Proposed Everglades Land Buy


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How much is too much land for a state to own? 

It was an inevitable question to arise last week within a cracking James Madison Institute session on "environmentalism versus property rights" -- especially with students from each of Florida's universities listening and learning at the JMI Policy Summit.

Sen. Joe Negron's proposal to buy 60,000 acres of sugar growers' farmland to build a reservoir was the 900-pound gorilla in the room.

The answer to the question in the first paragraph probably is, it depends how badly you need it and what your alternatives are. Certainly public ownership of more Florida land wasn't popular last Friday.

Actually, it hasn't been wildly popular in the Florida House either. Though environmental groups and concerned citizens on both coasts are pushing for the state to purchase sugar’s land, legislators -- apart from a handful in South Florida -- do not seem eager to rush into any expensive land deals, especially with millions of dollars already invested in projects aimed to address Florida’s water issues.

And CBS Miami has reported the views of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island: “If we truly want to honor our beautiful state, then we should spend these early years (in the Everglades restoration process) making sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation land we already own.”

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the first JMI panelist, wasted no time elevating land in his remarks.

"I'm deeply concerned about the amount of property owned by government and is no longer on the tax rolls," said Hays, a dentist who is leaving the Senate two years ahead of his term limit to run for Lake County property appraiser.

"Every acre that comes off the tax rolls gives governmental officials one of two options: reduce services or raise taxes on the remaining property."

Hays pointed out that Florida's total land mass is about 35 million acres, of which 10.5 million -- around 27 percent -- is already in public ownership and serving a conservation purpose.

In fact, Florida is 14th in a ranking of states with the most public-owned land, behind only one other East Coast state, New York. All the other states with more government control are out West, at least two time zones away.

Hays has had a big role to play in the state's land buying process. Under Senate President Andy Gardiner Hays served as chairman of the Budget Subcommittee on General Government Appropriations and on the Environmental Presentation and Conservation Committee.

He said, "I asked an environmental lobbyist once, 'how much land is enough for Florida to own?' And she said, 'I don't really know ...' So I said, 'Let me put it another way. How much land would you say is too much?' She said immediately, no hesitation, 'Oh, there's no such thing as too much.' That seems to be the mindset of too many people. Well, I beg to differ."

Hays said he favors reducing the nutrient levels in the lake by capturing and cleaning the dirty water before it gets to "the big O." All called-for in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

"It's the volume of water being discharged," he said. You could put distilled water in that lake you're going to disrupt the balance of those estuaries. The nutrients are only a complication." 

Hays says he's been working with scientists at Lake Apopka who have developed a chemical-free technology. "They can treat 5 million gallons per day for $37,500 It's .75 cents per gallon. That's their price and I haven' seen anything to touch it. It's really, really clean water."

The senator was adamant on scotching the call for Florida to buy more land where it isn't needed. "To me, rather than going out there and buying more private land and building more reservoirs, we need to enhance the reservoir we already have."

Environmental engineer Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council, and Dan Peterson, director of JMI's Center for Property Rights, both talked briefly about the benefit of keeping as much private land as possible out of government's hands -- for no other reason than private owners have an emotional attachment to their land and generally make better stewards of it.

"Once we buy it, it's ours to manage," Barnett said. 

"Florida already owns 120,000 acres north of the lake. There's even deep well disposal space there -- 3,000 to 4,000 feet below ground," he said.

All the panelists, every one of them -- especially Barnett, who designed many of CERP's features for the South Florida Water Management District -- say the state shouldn't waste its money on a new reservoir south of the lake when it owns property there, too. They hope lawmakers will vote to stay the course.

As Sal Nuzzo, JMI's vice president for policy, said during his Friday breakfast address, "The Everglades issue and everything surrounding it -- Lake Okeechobee, the discharges, the algal blooms -- all come down to a challenge we deal with called ADHD policymaking.

"We tend to want to focus on, 'we've got to do something right now,' regardless of whether the something we do right now will fix it or will do more harm than good. ... The issue with the Everglades has to do with decades of policymaking that have impacted an ecosystem, it has to do with several million people who have migrated into an area and the development that's gone into that, and it has do with a promise made by the federal government that has been rescinded, a promise to protect the lake, and a promise to protect the ecosystem and the people that has frankly just been negated. So 25 years of this struggle has gotten us to where we are now. ... There are plans in place to address all of it. They're just not ready right now."

Nuzzo was referring, I think, to Sen. Negron's southern reservoir proposal when he said, "The policy implications of what are being recommended by lots of people have human implications on people, on small businesses, on large businesses, on families, on generations of workers who have made their lives in South Florida. 

"If you live in Florida, I suggest that you educate yourself on what's being done," he said. "The moment we divert from these plans that have been in place for so long and go chasing this squirrel because that's what running across our path right now, then that's when we drop the ball."

If you didn't see it in July, you might want to have a look at the JMI backgrounder, "Solving the Everglades Riddle: Addressing Water Quality and Quantity to Restore a Florida Legacy." 

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith