Cabinet to consider first “rural lands” purchase

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Tuesday will consider approving the purchase of a 690-acre conservation easement in Flagler County, the first purchase under a state program aimed at preserving agricultural lands.

The land is owned by Gene and Marilyn J. Evans and includes a half-mile of shoreline along Lake Disston, which has good water quality and little development surrounding it, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District. The purchase has support from The Nature Conservancy, which points out that the Legislature this year for the first time in two decades provided no money for future conservation land buys.

The Evanses will be paid $2.7 million, or $4,061 per acre, to continue owning the property with prohibitions against development or mining. Timber harvesting can continue in upland portions of the property and cattle grazing within 200 feet of the lake is prohibited.

An aide to Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said the Evans family has a good balance of agricultural operations, which include timber-harvesting, cattle and raising sturgeon in fish tanks for caviar. The purchase would be the first under the Florida Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

“The first couple of acquisitions under this program, we want them to be really excellent stewards and well represent what we think the new program can do from an image perspective,” said Jim Boxold, Bronson’s chief Cabinet aide. “We really want to make sure we get the first couple right. That is going to set the tone for everything the program does.”

If approved, the purchase price will be split between the state Division of Forestry, which administers the Rural and Family Lands Program, and the St. Johns River Water Management District. The 690-acre conservation easement is on a portion of the 1,709 acres owned by the Evans family.

Gene Evans said the deal is good for both his family and the state.

“We’re on an outstanding water, Lake Disston,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful piece of property. We’ve owned it for a long time, tried to take care of it and also use it.”

The Florida Rural and Family Lands Protection Program in 2008 began receiving $10.5 million of the $300 million that had been appropriated annually for conservation lands purchases. The program was created by the Legislature in 2001 but did not receive Florida Forever conservation money until last year.

But this year, with the state facing a $6 billion decline in revenue, the Legislature provided no money for Florida Forever, leaving agencies to use only what had been unspent from last year.

“We are spending down the balance of the money and it’s not being replaced,” said Jeff Danter, The Nature Conservancy’s state director. “There are opportunities to acquire great conservation lands. Without the investment of the state of Florida those opportunites are going to pass us by.”

To view The Nature Conservancy’s letter to Gov. Crist regarding the purchase, click here.

(Maps and photos are from materials provided to the Cabinet by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the St. Johns River Water Management district.)

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

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