CFO Sink raises concerns about land purchases

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida state CFO Alex Sink raised concerns today that the Legislature’s proposed cuts to the state’s land purchase program will kill land deals that already have been approved by the governor and Cabinet.

The Legislature is poised to cut about $230 million from Florida Forever, the nation’s largest conservation land-buying program. The Legislature is meeting in special session this week to address a projected $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in the state budget caused by the slowing economy.

The Cabinet voted unanimously in November to approve the purchase of 54 acres near the Natural Bridge battlefield state park in Leon County. The property includes relics of the Civil War and prehistoric settlements dating back 12,000 years. It also contains at least eight openings into a watery cave system where the St. Marks River flows underground.

Sink said another purchase in Central Florida that was recently approved by the Governor and Cabinet also was suspended because of the Legislature’s proposed cuts.

“The fact they took those already committed projects off the table is not the best way to do business,” Sink said. We have to suspend all the activities of the state that are not mission critical. There others out there that they (legislators) did not touch.”

Gov. Charlie Crist said he also is concerned. He said he will get in touch with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the land-buying program, to determine what can be done to help the program.

Some environmental groups have said they’re concerned that the cuts to Florida Forever will mean an end to the program, which has led to the protection of more than 535,000 acres since 2001, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Landowners invest time and good will in working through the state’s purchase process and “with the stroke of a pen, it can all be undone,” said Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

She said the state land-buying program provides economic benefits to communities as environmental destinations and park projects. Those can include roads, visitor centers and park campgrounds and lodging facilities.

“Florida has always been an eco-tourist destination and it’s not just for our beaches,” she said. “I think that has been a misconception. In some communities these properties may be their only draw for tourism dollars.”

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie