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Florida's CFO Jimmy Patronis questions the costs of three recent state purchase land deals

Lake Hatchineha Watershed Florida Forever Project
Drew McDougal/Wildpath
Lake Hatchineha Watershed Florida Forever Project

Patronis said a federal judge’s ruling last month in a battle about wetlands permitting has affected the appraised values of 27,742 acres of agricultural land in Polk, Seminole, Hendry and Collier counties.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis suggested the state should have looked again at the prices of three conservation-land deals that totaled $193 million before they were approved Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Cabinet members.

Patronis said after the Cabinet meeting that a federal judge’s ruling last month in a battle about wetlands permitting has affected the appraised values of the 27,742 acres of agricultural land in Polk, Seminole, Hendry and Collier counties.

The Cabinet's actions Tuesday marked the first acquisition within the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Corridor, an important Everglades and panther habitat.

The acquisition of 25,039 acres within the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Corridor in Collier and Hendry counties will further connect the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve to the Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area, Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Wildlife and Environmental Area.

According to a news release about the acquisition, protection of the ecologically critical habitats and agricultural lands will prevent habitat fragmentation for a wide range of imperiled species, including the Florida panther. This property is within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 improperly transferred permitting authority to the state for projects that affect wetlands. As the legal fight continues, the state and business groups say Moss’ ruling has left developments in limbo.

“That (ruling) should have been factored into the appraisal process,” Patronis said. “I think the prices were high considering the legal challenges right now to do any type of development whatsoever on all those properties.”

Patronis said projects all over the state are “grinding to a grinding halt right now” because of Moss’ ruling.

The permitting authority is typically held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but federal officials transferred it to the state in late 2020, about a month before former President Donald Trump’s administration ended.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Miami Waterkeeper and St. Johns Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit in 2021 in Washington, D.C., challenging the transfer.

The Washington-based Moss on Feb.15 found that the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act in transferring the permitting approval process. The state on Feb. 26 filed a motion for a stay of Moss’ decision, but the judge has not ruled on the motion.

DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and Attorney General Ashley Moody on Tuesday voted to approve the three land deals, while Patronis dissented. The deals are:

  • Purchasing 1,342 acres in Polk County from Creek Legacy Ranch, LLC, Creek Ranch Mitigation Bank, LLC and Creek Ranch, LLC. Price: $36.1 million.
  • Purchasing 1,361 acres in Seminole County from Edward Yarborough Ranches, James W. Yarborough and Frances M. Yarborough. Price: $34.5 million.
  • Purchasing 25,039 acres in Hendry and Collier counties from CDC Land Investments, Inc., Collier Land Holdings, Ltd., and Cow Bone Slough, LLLP. Price: $122.4 million.

In a news release after the meeting, DeSantis’ office touted the deals as part of the “largest investment in decades for conservation lands,” with the Hendry and Collier land vital for the Everglades and Florida panther habitat.
Land in the three purchases are tied to a growing statewide wildlife corridor.

The Hendry and Collier land, which is part of what is known as the Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress corridor, would remain under the management of the current owners, which would be able to lease the property.

The state “will not receive compensation for any sublease,” a Cabinet report said. “Instead, the land manager will receive the proceeds, which will provide funding for the management of the subject property.”

Patronis said because the state doesn’t “put enough money into managing the resources we already have,” he supports allowing current owners to continue maintaining the land.

DeSantis and the entire Cabinet also approved two conservation easements that will allow landowners to continue ranching operations in exchange for limiting development.

The deals, through the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, involve paying $12.65 million for a 3,080-acre easement in Osceola County and $12.646 million for a 5,269-acre easement in Marion County.

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