Land-buying in crosshairs of Florida House panel

Members of a house budget-writing panel today took another shot at the Florida Forever land-buying program.

Florida Forever is the largest land-buying program in the nation and is a budget priority for environmental groups and Gov. Charlie Crist. But the program received no money from the Legislature last year for the first time since the program was created in 1990.

Today, members of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee ranked Florida Forever at No. 2 on a list of 51 spending programs that could be cut in fiscal year 2010-11.

Last week, committee members did not include Florida Forever on a list of programs that should be protected. Democrats on the committee have not turned in worksheets as Democratic leaders have protested the budget exercise.

Some committee members raised concerns about the district’s planned purchase of 72,500 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land for $533 million to pay for Everglades restoration. Both Democrats and Republicans said they agreed with Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-
Vero Beach and council chair, that the state should not be buying more land.

“I don’t think we ought to spend one more dime on land until we pay off our debt,” said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.

Some committee members also suggested that the state look for land that it can sell to help meet its revenue needs, which is also proposed in the draft “Jobs for Florida” bill in the Senate.

Audubon of Florida’s Julie Wraithmell said after the meeting that the state should wait rather than sell when land prices are low. “We think there is a strong case to be made for our work is not over yet and we have some tremendous opportunities given the state’s real estate market,” she said.

The committee is expected to discuss Florida Forever in more detail when it meets on Feb. 18. Poppell said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, will be asked to speak at the meeting.

The committee agreed with a request by Rep. Stephen L. Precourt, R-Orlando, to request information about the environmental purposes of individual state landholdings.

Audubon’s Wraithmell said Precourt’s questions were insightful.

“I’m optimistic that, with a further vetting of all those benefits of the program, there will be meaningful discussion about continuing that legacy” of Florida Forever, she said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)