South Florida Water Management District Makes Historic Vote

            On Monday, December 15th, 2008, the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) governing board convened for what would have been a regular meeting except for two things – a vote that was to occur on the acceptance of the Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan and the vote on whether or not to accept a contract to purchase 180,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar. The latter represented the largest land acquisition by a state government in our nation’s history, and before the board finally voted 4-3 in favor of the plan they listened to two days of testimony – including some 50 public comments – and deliberated for 4 hours. The decision was a landmark one for our state, and very emotional, as both the fate of a community and the future of the Everglades hung in the balance. I was there for both days of this historical meeting.

 

 

December 15th

 

            Day one began at 9:30 am in the District’s headquarters on Gun Club Road in West Palm Beach. As the hearing on the U.S. Sugar property – officially called “The Everglades Land Acquisition Project, ‘Reviving the River of Grass’ ” – wasn’t set to begin until after lunch, the room was relatively empty and completely devoid of the tension to come. Board members ran through their Consent and Discussion agendas quickly, approving an outsourcing contract for the testing of concrete, entering into a cost-share agreement with the city of Marathon for storm water treatment and approving $2 million to help Glades communities with their water quality issue.

            Next, the Board began their Workshop Agenda, discussing an application submitted by Cutler Bay Development requesting a permit to build on 42 acres of “critical mangrove area” along Biscayne Bay. The developer was willing to compromise by donating 138 acres for conservation for being allowed to build. The Board, recognizing the fact that this was a cost-free way to obtain 138 acres of environmentally sensitive land, voted to discuss the issue further.

 

The Caloosahatchee Watershed Protection Plan

 

            The Board then agreed to vote on both the Caloosahatchee Watershed Protection Plan and the St. Lucie River Watershed Protection Plan, a time-sensitive item scheduled for 11:30 am. Temperince Morgan, who had been in charge of putting the Plan together and submitting it to the public for input, stood up to give the Board a summary of what she had learned at the many public meetings, and what changes to the plan had occurred as a result.

            “All the people we’ve talked to have been very supportive and we’ve received a great deal of public comments during the time we’ve been on the road,” she said. “We captured all formal comments and responses in the appendices to the Plan, but we did not need to make any big changes.”

            Morgan said that most of the concerns heard about the Caloosahatchee Plan had to do with moving forward with the C-43 water quality treatment reservoir, land acquisition and additional storage for water and the need to better understand nitrogen treatment technology (nitrogen being a troublesome pollutant in the Caloosahatchee River).

            The Caloosahatchee Plan is a big one (see Sand Paper Issue 402, October 24th, 2008) involving reducing the reduction of freshwater releases into the Caloosahatchee River Estuary, increased water storage areas and reduction of pollution.

            “We are asking you for a resolution to accept these plans and send them to the state legislature,” she concluded.

            Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall addressed the Board on behalf of Lee County.

            “I want to thank the South Florida Water Management District for working with us on this issue,” she said. “It has been a real challenge getting us to this point and now that we’ve all come together for once, we want to partner with you. Lee County has always said it would come forward to help with any costs. Happy holidays and I look forward to working with you.”

            Following similar comments from Martin County Board of Commissioners Chairman Susan Valere, the Board voted unanimously to send the two Plans to the legislature.

            Board member Michael Collins urged the other members to make sure that, once passed, work actually began on the Plans.

            “These are excellent plans, but buried in this building somewhere is another great plan that got passed in 1975 and never implemented,” he said. “For a plan to truly be successful, it must be implemented.”

            Commissioner Hall spoke with us after the vote.

            “It was really important that we had unanimous support,” she said. “Lee and Martin County will work together to collectively provide funding with the cooperation of the SFWMD. The Caloosahatchee River is a jewel, and I am dedicated to making sure this Plan doesn’t sit on the shelf and does get implemented.”

            Just before lunch, the Board listened to Deputy Executive Director of Everglades Restoration Ken Ammon give a PowerPoint presentation on the District’s agreements with the federal government in relationship to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

            The report was extensive and covered all the projects currently in place, how each project was being funded and what had been accomplished so far on each, and an outline of what impediments to CERP had been identified. The presentation also included a history of CERP. 

            Out of the nine projects listed as “critical”, seven have either been implemented or are listed as ongoing. Ammon said that the Army Corps of Engineers is going to Congress to ask for more funding for the remaining two.

            Lunch was called at 12:30, and the meeting resumed at 1:30, when SFWMD staff began its final presentation on the painstaking work that had been done on the Everglades land acquisition.

 

The Beginning of the Land Acquisition Hearing

 

            Returning from lunch, the room was now filled. Reporters, environmental groups, representatives from rival agricultural businesses, Clewiston community leaders and the entire senior class of Clewiston High School packed the meeting in anticipation of what was to come.

            The presentations began with Assistant Deputy Director of Everglades Restoration Tommy Strowd speaking about the Engineering Evaluation of the project. His report, compiled by the Shaw Environmental Group, included reports on crop area lands, the facilities in those areas, airstrips and non-process buildings on the land.

            Key findings on the croplands are that there are 22,240 acres involved in citrus farming and 128,650 acres in sugar cane farming. There are 1,130 miles of canals, 1,945 miles of unpaved roads and 11 bridges on the property, along with 330 miles of levees and 365 pump stations. The facilities were found to be in typical condition for a South Florida agricultural operation, with a small percentage in need of repairs.

            There are 14 airstrips located on the property, none of which are approved for anything other than commercial use. 47 buildings also exist, ranging from offices to storage barns. The buildings were found to vary greatly in terms of condition, and 13 were recommended for demolition. Safety concerns, according to the lease, are the responsibility of U.S. Sugar.

            Bob Kukleski gave the next presentation concerning the quality of the soil. Ten firms conducted an environmental audit of all 292 square miles of land using ecological risk assessment protocols established by U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Environmental Protection.

            According to the purchasing agreement, any clean up to commercial standards would be the responsibility of the leassee (U.S. Sugar) and clean-up to ecological standards the responsibility of the purchaser (SFWMD) – an issue that would prove to be a sticking point later in the deliberations.

            The assessment included the collection of more than 500 water samples and 12,500 soil samples, and found that 52% of the acreage posed no significant ecological risk. The remaining acreage was found to be consistent with what could be expected from 100 years of farming and were similar to other agricultural properties acquired under CERP.

            Different mechanisms for cleaning the soil were discussed, with the most effective being scraping away the top 6 inches, and plowing under the next 12 inches (soil inversion). The cost of this method is approximately $7550 per acre, and this cost could be controlled by construction characteristics and manipulating the area needed for conservation. Many questions were asked by the Board during this presentation, with the chief concern being how much of that cost would be paid by U.S. Sugar.

            At this point, on the request of Chairman Buermann, the students from Clewiston High School – represented by Chelsey Brown, were allowed to speak so they could return to school.

            “U.S. Sugar has always been the largest caretaker of my community,” she began, as she urged the Board to vote no. “The sugar mill is the foundation that our community rests upon. Without them, we risk losing our scholarships when the budgets are cut as a result of this purchase.” She then asked the board “not to turn her town into a nature preserve”.

            Land appraisals and lease analysis were next, presented by Chief Appraiser Ray Palmer. The latter was of special interest to farmers in Clewiston, who believe that the lease rates of $50 an acre to U.S. Sugar are too low and will eliminate competition in the sugar cane industry for the six years they lease the land.

            According to the report, the lease rate was found to be comparable with comparable leases in the area, but that the fact that lease exists will have a negative impact on property value.

            “Since the Board is buying this land for conservation rather than commercial purposes, it is a good deal,” Palmer concluded.

            Strowd stepped up again, to inform the Board as to the economic value of estuaries, which the land acquisition – once complete – will go a long way towards repairing. The report focused on the economic values of Indian River Lagoon ($3,726,000,000); Charlotte Harbor ($1,800,000,000) and Florida Bay Estuaries (estimated $1.9 billion spent by visitors in 1999).

            Deputy Executive Director of Government and Public Affairs Deena Reppen then documented the extensive media coverage and involvement and input from the public so far.

            Last to present before public comments took up the rest of the day were Chief Financial Officer Paul Dumars and Budget Director Doug Bergstrom, who gave the financial report – the outcome of which would prove to be the most controversial aspect of the project.

            The object of the report was to present a 10-year projection of revenue sources, while incorporating the uncertainty of state funding for current known obligations. The report provided for three possible scenarios, optimistic, more likely and pessimistic, Even the optimistic scenario called for a reduction of 2% on core operations for the next two years, and the pessimistic had that reduction at 22%, taking into account the potential impact of declining state revenues.

            At 4:00, since so many people wanted to address the board, Chairman Buermann called for the beginning of Public Comment, and 21 people immediately signed up to speak, with each being given a three-minute limit.

            The speakers on that first day were about evenly divided between for and against. Nearly all of those urging a yes vote were from environmental organizations excited at the prospect of restoring the Everglades’ natural water flow when U.S. Sugar’s lease ran out.

            “Scientists have told us that we need to have the ability to store one million acre feet of water from Lake Okeechobee to be able to prevent harmful releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers,” said Mark Krowse of the Everglades Foundation. “This water will then be released into the Everglades as would naturally occur. I know this is expensive, but this is the only opportunity we have for a land purchase like this. Ask yourself – how much is a restored Everglades worth?”

            Gaylon Lawrence, representing the Lawrence Group – an agricultural entity that has expressed interest in purchasing U.S. Sugar’s land, told the Board that they wanted to continue to farm the land while offering a smaller number of acres for sale for restoration. “We can have economic and environmental success in the Glades communities,” he said. “What we offer is a compromise. The mill has to operate or Clewiston dies.”

            When pressed by the Board as to how many acres he was speaking of that his company would be willing to sell for conservation, he was unable to give an answer.

            “For me, it’s impossible to assess what you’re talking about without a number of acres,” said Buermann.

            Butch Wilson, a 6th generation native of Clewiston, spoke up and urged the Board to allow the Lawrence Group and Florida Crystals, a rival sugar company run by the Fanjul family, to negotiate for the property. His comments echoed many coming from citizens of that city, sometimes called “Florida’s Sweetest Town” for its ties to the sugar industry.

 

Public comment concluded at 5:30pm, and the meeting was adjourned until the following morning at 9:00am.

 

December 16th

 

            The second day began with everyone present fully aware that the Board members were going to vote that day on the largest and most expensive state land acquisition in history at 1.34 billion. It was standing room only in the conference room with the tension being considerably higher, and officers from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office were present as agriculture interests and environmental groups found themselves pitted against one another in a lively public debate that lasted all morning. As the afternoon wound on, however, while the Board members debated but didn’t vote, that tension got even thicker.

            Before the second day of public debate began, the Board asked for clarification on the items such as arsenic levels and lease agreements that they had requested additional information from on Monday, followed by Executive Director Carol Wehle summarizing the timeline of events that had both led to this day and what the board could expect, if they agreed to the contract, in the future.

            “In July of this year, SFWMD began negotiations after Governor Crist signed a non-binding statement of principles,” said Wehle. “Through the months leading up to December, the Board was given monthly updates on negotiations with U.S. Sugar, due diligence was presented and public input was sought. On December 2nd the first of three public Board meetings was held, culminating with today.”

            Wehle then explained that January 15th would be the termination date for the inspection of the land and February 15th being the last day US Sugar could seek other proposals. “Between then and July 15th, budget decisions made by the Governor and the legislature may affect the Board’s ability to pay for the land,” she said. She told the Board that August would be when they would submit the SFWMD budget to the governor – including how they were going to pay for the lands purchased from US Sugar, and September 25th, 2009 was the final closing date on the sale of the 180,000 acres.

            The Board had a few more questions for Wehle before they took the final public comment and began their long debate. One of the issues, concerning the ability to back out of the contract if funding were not found, would be added to the contract at the end of the day by Board Vice-Chairman Shannon Estenoz.

            Wehle also told the Board of a hearing last Friday where Florida Crystals filed a notice of opposition to the sale, on the basis of whether or not this project constitutes a “paramount public purpose. “A trial will be held on February 6th, where the District will present its case,” she said. “Depending on how the judge rules, it could go to the Florida Supreme Court. They will need to rule by June for us to make the September closing deadline.”

            Carol then wrapped up her presentation to the board by saying, “I would like to remind the Board that the reason we brought this forward was environmental issues. There are incredibly important benefits to estuaries. This project also increases water storage, reduces the impact on Lake Okeechobee, reduces dependence on unknown technology and relieves pressure on the Herbert Hoover dike while the government undertakes repairs,” she concluded.

            Board member Mike Collins pointed out, “The land acquisition by itself does none of these things. It just gives us the opportunity to do these things, if everything works out.”

            The Board then heard the final public comment, with 22 people signed up. The speakers, perhaps in realization that a vote was imminent, were very emotional and often booed or applauded one another, depending on which side of the issue they were on. They remained divided as the day before, and had even divided their seats – those for the project taking up the front rows and those against the back, with slightly more speaking against the project.

            Rosa Durando was one of the few environmentalists who spoke out against the project. “We don’t have adequate information,” she said, emphatically yelling at the Board to make her point. “No one measured for mercury or the cost to clean it up, either.” She took her seat to thunderous applause from the back of the room.

            Kirk Fordham of the Everglades Foundation proved to be one of the more controversial speakers when he took the podium and said,  “Some things about yesterday really disappointed me. Those kids were told that if the board voted for this deal, they would lose scholarships. They were lied to by special interests. Opponents of this deal refuse to reveal their true motives – they want this land for themselves to expand sugar growing interests. Do you really think the Fanjuls have the best interest of this state at heart? 7 million + people live in the16 counties you represent, and 100,000′s of families who work in tourism industries need clean water and jobs, too.”

            Paul Gray of the Audubon Society pointed out how much water would be able to flow south and replenish the Biscayne aquifer – a source of water for Miami’s millions.

            Other environmentalists expressed concern for the citizens of Clewiston but pointed out that the land owned by U.S. Sugar could not be farmed forever.

            “There’s a seven year transition period – surely their employees can plan for new careers during that time,” said the Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone. “Plan for green jobs and how many people are going to visit Clewiston too see a restored Everglades.” He also suggested that U.S. Sugar take care of their employees by helping them make the transition.

            I spoke with Melanie McGahee, community development director for the city of Clewiston, and she told us that was not likely to happen.

            “I met with U.S. Sugar President Robert Coker not too long ago, and when I asked him what he thought I should do, he said, “I’m not your Daddy”,” she said. “When I asked him to reassure the people of Clewiston, he said, “What have they done for me”. That’s how arrogant he is.”

            A funny moment occurred when Rivers Coalition Defense Fund Karl Wickstrom spoke of the importance of protecting the estuaries while brandishing a large plastic snook.

            By far the most controversial moment of the day occurred when Gaston Cantens and Gabriel Nieto, representing Florida Crystals – the company involved in the lawsuit – addressed the Board.

            “When all else fails, blame the Fanjuls,” said Cantens. “Since June, Florida Crystals has sought to make sure this deal would guarantee Everglades restoration while sustaining agriculture. These deadlines (by the Board) prevent cooperation, so we filed last Friday. We do have interests – keeping our people with jobs.” He mentioned editorials from newspapers across the state objecting to this acquisition, and finished speaking as audience members shouted at him for extending his time.

            When Board members asked him, as they had asked Gaylon Lawrence the day before, how many acres his company would be willing to sell for restoration, he said, “As soon as you start taking land out of production, you are threatening the viability of the mill. As far as how many acres we could operate without, it’s difficult for us to answer questions about something we have no information on.”

            We spoke with Mr. Cantens after he was done addressing the Board and he told us he was hopeful that Florida Crystals would be able to continue working with the state. When we asked him if his company would continue to pursue legal action if the board voted yes, he replied, “No comment.”

            Chief Financial Officer for the First Bank of Clewiston, Deborah Van Sickle was the most emotional as she cried at the podium while saying, ”The loss of these 1700 jobs will create an economic Hiroshima for our town. We’re not trying to gain anything but our own family livelihood. People have called me everyday asking, “How can this happen to us? How can government destroy our community?” Our demise will harm the state – please don’t be fooled by U.S. Sugar.”

            The Mayor of Clewiston, Mali Chamness, took Kirk Fordham’s comments to task when she said, “I disagree with Mr. Fordham. No one spreads lies, we speak the truth, we are not special interests. We just love our community and town.”

            Public comment ended with Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole reading a letter from Governor Crist urging the Board to go ahead with making the “dream of Everglades restoration” a reality. He also mentioned looking forward to working with the people of Clewiston in the making of an “Inland Port” – an industrial distribution center proposed for several of the towns around Lake Okeechobee.

            Following the lunch break, everyone filed back in. It seemed like the outcome was anyone’s guess as the Board settled in to discuss the issue.

 

Final Deliberations

 

            Melissa Meeker started the discussion by saying, “If there were just a simple land acquisition, this would be a no-brainer. But it’s not. There are so many issues wrapped up in it! But this decision would have been a whole lot easier if we had addressed the economy for Clewiston. Inland port = full range of jobs. The fact we’ve made no progress on this is upsetting. I have grave concerns about this issue.”

            The Board then debated back and forth about the plight of the people of Clewiston before discussing the financial aspects of the contract.

            Collins continually pointed out his concern that, by committing so much money to the land purchase, the Board might lose it’s ability to fund other important projects.

            Jerry Montgomery was concerned about many aspects of the contract. “There’s a difference between legal and practical,” he said.

            Meeker wanted to make sure that the District had the opportunity to approach third parties about the possibility of partnering with them in attempt to ease some of the financial burden.

            Throughout the long afternoon, Buermann had to keep reminding the Board that the issue before them was the contract on the table, and any additions or changes would be seen as a rejection. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole, who had been present at the negotiations with U.S. Sugar, diligently answered all their questions.

            Finally, Chairman Buermann gave a lengthy speech during which he illustrated the importance of the land purchase.

            “This is not a perfect deal, but rarely do you find a perfect deal,” he said. “The buyer and the seller have a meeting of the minds – each thinks he is getting robbed. If we were going into the sugar business, I wouldn’t take this deal. Maybe U.S. Sugar would come back to the table if we counter-offer, maybe they won’t. This is our moment in history, I would ask the board to be somewhat visionary in all of this. I have an MBA, I’m a lawyer, and I can see all the commercial aspects. But this is long term.” He spoke of Theodore Roosevelt and how he was criticized when he began the national parks system, before encouraging the board to vote not only with their conscious but also with their courage.

            Montgomery, clearly valuing the Chairman’s opinion, asked for help in understanding how he thinks the Board will remain financially stable. “When it comes down to it, I’m fundamentally troubled by the money. I would love to hear how you rationalize through that.”

            “I think that, for the first six years, sure. But then you’ll be able to sell the surplus land. Use that money to pay down the debt.” Buermann replied.

 

 

The Vote

 

            “In the interest of moving this forward,” said Vice- Chairman Estenoz, “I am personally willing to take the risk of adding in the financial out language. I am going to move forward with approval of the deal with the addition of paragraph 7.18 – which states that if the district faces a situation where reductions in revenue threaten our core operations, then we have an out.”

            “The motion that I’m putting on the table before us is to approve this contract,” she continued. “I am making this motion because the land identified in this contract, the entire 180,000 acres, is what is for sale. It is not available in pieces. This represents the only opportunity, in my opinion, to save this land.”

            The motion was seconded by Montgomery, who stated that it was his intention to find a viable economic plan for the people of Clewiston, and to continue to move forward on projects already in place.

            The remaining Board members then cast their votes.

             “My priorities are Lake Okeechobee and the people around it,” said Duaray, “I don’t see anyone walking around with a checkbook to help us with this – no senators or members of Congress. Maybe some leaders of environmental groups could offer some support. Another thing I’m concerned about – we’re talking about restoring the quality of life for our children while we’re willing to sacrifice the well-being and culture of people today. This is a bad contract, at a bad time, and I’m going to vote no.”

            Board member Patrick Rooney said, “I don’t like take it or leave it deals. I do think we’re close, but as it stands right now I can’t go forward with this. One other thing I don’t understand how we can just say I hope it works out for you to the people of Clewiston. If we can go back and work on this a bit more I would, but if you want me to take it or leave it, I’m leaving it.”

            Chairman Beurmann then cast a yes vote, followed by Melissa Meeker, who did the same, effectively approving the offer – with the addition of paragraph 7.18 – with a 4-3 majority at 5:05 on Tuesday afternoon.

            At the end of the meeting, I spoke with Secretary Sole, who had phoned a representative of US Sugar immediately following the vote. “I feel comfortable that they will be accepting of it,” he said. “Obviously, they will have to take it to their board, but nobody wants to put the district in a position where they’ll be jeopardizing their core mission. I don’t expect this to be a problem.”

            Board Vice-Chairman Shannon Estenoz, who made the first motion to bring the decision, finally, to a vote, was emotional and grateful following the long day.

            “What I realized at the end of the day was where do I need to be in order to vote on this contract or risk losing it,” she said. “I have always stated that we are in the strongest negotiation position possible  only if we have a contract. Jerry (Montgomery) helped me gain some clarity and see a way to move forward.”

            Estenoz told me that she, as a fourth generation Floridian, felt a special need to protect her ancestral land.

            “The time was now, this is so important – what we do here today will change the state of Florida forever,” she said.

 

                                    Keri Hendry

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Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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