DEP working on criteria after surplus lands controversy

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is developing criteria for agencies to use in deciding whether they want to get rid of conservation land following controversies over the Suwannee River Water Management District’s proposals to sell or exchange land.

Florida has the largest conservation land-buying program in the nation with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990. Some legislators say the state has too much land and should sell some of it, but some environmentalists say it’s a myth that state has a lot of surplus land.

Since May, the Suwannee River Water Management District has identified nine parcels with 765 acres that it says are surplus and can be sold. But environmental groups objected, saying the district’s efforts violate a constitutional provision that allows the Cabinet and other agency governing boards to sell conservation land only if it is no longer needed for conservation purposes.

On Aug. 23, DEP sent a letter to the district saying it had reviewed each of the nine tracts and determined that seven still had conservation values and should be retained. DEP said two parcels totaling 93 acres could be sold.

Joe Flanagan, the district’s director of land acquisition and management, said no decision had been made by the agency’s governing board on the DEP recommendations. But Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida’s director of advocacy, said he hopes the district will heed what he called the “pretty strong advice” from DEP.

In a Sept. 2 letter, DEP’s Deborah Poppell said the department is working on criteria that will be presented to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council in October. Lee congratulated the department for working to develop uniform criteria for state land to avoid each agency having its own.

“There isn’t any question there is a need for surplus land policy and surplus land evaluation,” Lee said. “But it needs to be done on a factual, nonprejudicial basis that relates to the reason why the land was acquired.”

“The fact we have some legislators out there who are basically going at this in the way they are is proof of the wisdom of having an amendment in the Constitution that says you can’t do it this way,” he said. “We knew from the past history of Florida there would always be people who emerge and say, ‘Sell it all off.’ “

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