Landowner says he’ll sell rather than wait on state

By Bruce Ritchie

A Leon County landowner says he likely won’t sell to the state now that the Legislature has cut its conservation land-buying program.

The Legislature Wednesday voted to approve a $2.8 billion package of spending cuts and trust fund transfers. The measure was needed to offset declining revenue in the state budget, legislative leaders said.

The Legislature would freeze the Florida Forever land-buying program that has protected more than 500,000 acres since 2000. Two projects already approved by the governor and Cabinet, including the 54-acre Rakestraw property in Leon County, won’t be purchased this fiscal year.

With the Legislature poised to cut the program on Tuesday, landowner Jim Rakestraw said that means that his family likely will look for another buyer and said there are prospects.

“I don’t think I’ll hold off for the state any more,” Rakestraw said. “We”ve been trying to do this for four years. I imagine it will go on the market for anybody who wants it.”

Environmental groups Wednesday voiced disappointment at the pending loss of money for the largest conservation land buying program in the nation.

“The Legislature is turning its back on scores of important projects, many of which will probably end up getting developed rather than protected,” said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

The Rakestraw’s 54 acres near the Natural Bridge battlefield state park in Leon County 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.

The governor and Cabinet voted unanimously in November to purchase the property. But Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole said the budget cutting package doesn’t allow Florida Forever funds to go toward the purchase.

Other conservation purchases not on DEP’s purchase list likely also will be affected. The Northwest Florida Water Management District was considering the purchase of 5,000 acres along the Chipola River but will put that off because of budget cuts, said Doug Barr, the district’s executive director.

Draper said environmental groups also may ask the governor to veto HB 5113. which transfers $8 million from the Water Management Lands Trust Fund to general revenue, and HB 5115, which transfers $11 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and chair of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, said last week the transfers were needed because of declines in documentary stamp tax revenue. Analysts told legislators in December they expect the state this year to receive only 29 percent of the $4 billion received annually from documentary stamp taxes.

Sen. J.D. Alexander on Wednesday tried to reassure environmentalists that the freeze of the Florida Forever land buying program is intended to be temporary, according to the News Service of Florida.

Alexander, R-Winter Haven, said during debate that the Florida Forever is “a program that clearly is very important to our state” and that he looks at the freeze as being temporary.

“It would be my hope … that these critical programs could be reinstated,” Alexander said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie