Environmentalists say looming development plans might make it harder for the state to buy land important for Everglades Restoration. (Photo by Joe Parks)

Environmentalists say looming development plans might make it harder for the state to buy land important for Everglades Restoration. (Photo by Joe Parks)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Environmental groups around the state are alarmed at U.S. Sugar’s plans to potentially develop huge tracts of land it owns in Hendry County, which might affect Everglades restoration efforts.

Earlier this month Craig Pittman of The Tampa Bay Times reported U.S. Sugar was looking to change up its business plan by taking on big development projects in  Florida. According to the Times,

The company, which has been growing and processing sugar cane in South Florida since the 1930s, has mapped out a way to turn itself into one of Florida’s biggest developers. On 67 square miles of sugar land southwest of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers of Florida, another sugar company with adjoining property, have joined forces on a project that would plop down 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of stores, offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings amid the rural landscape. But the land that U.S. Sugar wants to designate for development is the same land that Florida officials have an option to buy for Everglades restoration.

If the sugar companies’ development plan is approved, that land would be worth a lot more — making it more expensive for the state to purchase.

“It’s good for business but bad for taxpayers,” said David Crawford of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

U.S. Sugar says this is not a problem, because it’s not inclined to develop its land any time soon — only if the market dictates such development would be worthwhile. If approved, the plan could be developed any time before 2060, but some land would remain designated for agriculture, the company said.

The possible development site sits in an area the state was looking to purchase in an effort to move water south from Lake Okeechobee down through the Everglades.

Right now, there is excessive nutrient-rich freshwater being sent east and west of the lake into estuaries. These waterways are being heavily polluted, which has been frustrating communities on either side of the lake. In 2008, then-Governor Charlie Crist announced a plan aimed at saving the Everglades.

The state would purchase nearly 300 square miles of land owned by U.S. Sugar, then treat and send water south through to the Everglades, according to the plan. However, before the plan was fully implemented and paid for, the economy collapsed and officials decided on a smaller scale plan. The state only purchased a fraction of the acreage it had planned to buy. Now, however, state officials have the option of staggering the purchases of the rest of the land.

The South Florida Water Management District has the ability to buy 100 percent of U.S. Sugar’s land through October 2020– and there’s an option for the state agency to acquire only 47,000 acres expiring in October 2015. Even though this has been available to the state, Gov. Rick Scott has not dedicated funding to buy the rest of that sugar land.

The issue is also now mired in gubernatorial politics. Scott is running against now-Democratic candidate Charlie Crist this November. A year ago, environmental groups and residents in Southwest Florida were calling on officials to buy some of the land after a summer of heavy rain.

The Army Corps of Engineers spent the summer releasing a lot of water east and west of Lake Okeechobee, resulting in water quality issues. Area residents were frustrated and asked the state to take serious action– including moving forward with sugar land purchases.

However, state officials said the purchases weren’t a priority.At the time environmentalists like the Seirra Club’s Jonathon Ullman said if the deadline to purchase land passes, future purchases become more costly and less likely.

Now, environmentalists are making the same warning. The Times reported last week,

Two dozen people from Florida environmental groups showed up at the South Florida Water Management District board meeting Thursday in West Palm Beach to protest plans by U.S. Sugar to develop property that the state has an option to buy for Everglades restoration.

…The environmental groups are objecting to the change because they say it will make the land far more expensive for the state to buy for restoring the Everglades. Hendry County officials have given it a green light. In addition to protesting at the water agency meeting, they have also sent thousands of emails to Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials.

As Pittman reported earlier this month, the development follows news that Sugar executives invited Florida officials to join them on hunting trips in Kings Ranch. According to previous reporting from the Times/Miami Herald, Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli were among those invited. According to Pittman,

A year after buying its hunting lease, U.S. Sugar began working on its development plan. Sanchez said company officials did not discuss its development plan with any of those elected officials who took the trips.

“I’m sure we probably talked to some of our local (elected) folks, but not the folks you’re thinking of,” she said. She said they did not coordinate the plan with officials from King Ranch. The vice president in charge of King Ranch’s Florida lands is Mitch Hutchcraft, whom Gov. Scott appointed to the South Florida Water Management District governing board a month after Scott’s trip to King Ranch. Hutchcraft would not discuss his company’s plans, instead repeatedly referring a reporter to the documents the company filed.

When asked if he had met with Scott during the governor’s hunting trip, Hutchcraft said, “You have a good day now.” Scott has also refused to say whether he met Hutchcraft at King Ranch.

Dan Christensen with BrowardBulldog.org reports state and local officials will ultimately be key in getting the Sugar Hill plans approved. According to Christensen,

Various state agencies have been or will be involved in reviewing the giant project by the two Clewiston-based companies. They include Florida’s departments of Economic Opportunity, Transportation, Agriculture and Environmental Protection, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.

The plan for Sugar Hill, which documents show has been discussed with various state and local officials since July 2013, appears to be on a fast track. The plan was formally submitted to Hendry County on June 2. The county commission gave its initial thumbs-up last week by approving U.S. Sugar/Hilliard’s lengthy development application for transmittal to Tallahassee.

Under a law signed by Gov. Scott in 2011, the state’s sector planning program now lets local governments engage in long-term planning for large areas with minimal state interference. The same law abolished Florida’s Department of Community Affairs, which had overseen state growth management efforts and reviewed local comprehensive plans, and transferred its planning function to the newly created Department of Economic Opportunity.

Christensen also reports that the possible development largely hinges upon whether plans for an airport in Hendry County, called Airglades, gets approved. The hope is that  Airglades– as well as developments such as Sugar Hill– will serve as a means of economic growth in the area, which has been struggling to get on its feet.

In the meantime, future plans depend on approval from various agencies– and possibly the results of the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election.