By Steve Miller
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida is in the process of identifying beaches that the state may then sell to private owners. The only thing stopping the sales are written objections, and the most frequent of them just might be able to save some of the land for public use.
Through a complicated process called State Conservation Land Assessment, Florida officials determine land with a lower conservation value that will be then put up for sale. But what most people don’t know that is that combating the proposed sales is an example of where fighting city hall can pay.
Last week residents around Cayo Costa, a Gulf of Mexico peninsula in Lee County, spoke out on the plan to sell about ten acres of the state park, including some beach area, according to the Pine Island Eagle. Here’s how the Eagle summed up a meeting of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners:
Ralf Brookes, an attorney in Cape Coral, said some of the parcels included in the original list functioned as beach access. He was worried about the island’s endemic ecosystems and the public’s access to the beach.
“For decades the state has been trying to acquire lands on upper Captiva and Cayo Costa to prevent development of those parcels and provide beach access so visitors have access to the beach and state park land,” said Brookes.
He said that if the parcels go up for sale, developers would be able to purchase the properties and apply for variances with Lee County to build on fragile properties.
“The only way to forever preserve the land is to have them in public ownership,” he said.
But the public owners are in the real estate business, and that usually has a goal of profits. The state sells, leases, subleases, rents and manages activities on public land to the tune of $24 million in revenue annually.
And some griping can go a long way, said Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “We started with a list of 170 sites and 5,200 acres,” Gillespie said. “Now we’re down to 100 sites and 4,200 acres. And we continue to take things off the list.”
The department holds public comment sessions and Webinars on the plan. According to a summary report of email and written correspondence through September 11, Cayo Costa is the hottest topic, with 180 comments. The runner-up, Oleta River State Park in North Miami, had 106 and was removed from the list.
Protests largely dictate decisions on which property to remove a property from the list. Lee County commissioners have promised to send complaints they heard to the state on behalf of the aggrieved residents.
Then there’s the big unknown detail: Once the sandy beaches and parks are deemed to be ready for sale, colleges and universities have first crack, and they can lease them. Next, rights go to the cities and counties in which the properties are located, and the municipalities and counties can buy them at appraised value.
So, you can protest to the county about a plan to take coveted land, the county sends your protest on to the state. But even if the state goes ahead and puts the property on the market, your elected officials can solve the whole thing by scooping it up and preserving it.
And if no one takes it?
“Yes there is the potential it could be sold to anyone,” Gillespie said.