After nearly five months of negotiations, the board of the South Florida Water Management District on Dec. 16 voted to approve the purchase of 181,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for $1.34 billion. The board of United States Sugar Corp., the landowner, approved the sale agreement on Dec. 8. The water district ammended the offer, limiting its lability, before voting. But U.S. Sugar may insist that the district approve the deal without change and refuse to accept the counteroffer.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) June 24 announcement that Clewiston, Fla.-based U.S. Sugar had agreed to sell the state its land and assets and go out of business sparked an outpouring of enthusiasm from environmental advocates who have fought for decades to restore the Everglades sheetflow from Lake Okeechobee. The Glades are dying from the effects of pollution and ill-advised drainage schemes. Crist hailed the sale as “an opportunity to provide the critical missing link in our restoration activities.” The Everglades Agricultural Area lies squarely in the path of what was once an unhindered flow-way of Ever-glades water.

U.S. Sugar Corp. still has 60 days to solicit and enter discussions with an alternative bidder.

But during the months of quiet negotiations, public controversy rose to a boil over several aspects of the proposal. The 4-3 vote in favor of the amended purchase agreement followed nearly two days of public hearings and anguished debate by the district’s board. If U.S. Sugar agrees to the change, it still has 60 days to seek alternative bidders for the company’s stock or assets.