After two days of public hearings and debate, the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board still hesitated to approve an agreement to purchase 180,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area from the United States Sugar Corp. for $1.34 billion. As it stood, the board feared, the agreement could expose the district to penalties for conditions over which it had no control. Finally, the board approved a modified agreement with a 4-3 vote, knowing that the Clewiston, Fla., agribusiness might refuse to accept the amendment. But late on Dec. 16, after the water district’s vote, U.S. Sugar issued a statement saying the amendment “was a non-material modification within the authorized scope” of the sale agreement that the company already had approved. And with that, the parties began looking ahead.
The agreement was the culmination of a process that broke into the news June 24, when Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) announced that U.S. Sugar and the state had reached an agreement in principle for the sugar-cane grower to sell the state all its land and assets in the Everglades and go out of business after seven years. The terms subsequently were modified to include only a land transaction, reducing the proposed sale price from $1.75 billion to $1.34 billion. By Nov. 12, when negotiations were concluded, the condition of the economy had substantially changed and many stakeholders were voicing doubts about the proposal’s wisdom and viability.
Following the approval, U.S. Sugar now has 60 days to solicit and entertain alternative bids, including seeking further clarification from the Lawrence Group, Nashville, Tenn., which has offered $300 per share for U.S. Sugar’s stock. That offer “is subject to numerous uncertainties,” said Robert H. Buker Jr., president and CEO in a Dec. 10 letter to employees and stockholders.
The water district too has work to do. “We have a Feb. 6 court hearing to have certificates of participation validated by the circuit court to preapprove financing” for the purchase, says Eric Buermann, chairman of the SFWMD governing board. Buermann expects the district to receive financial assistance for the purchase from other sources, including the federal government, which is committed under the 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to share equally in the costs of restoring the ecosystem. “This is America’s Everglades, a World Heritage site,” he says. “Here we have the state showing tremendous commitment,” he says. To date, the state has put far more money into the program than the federal government has.
Some opponents of the agreement expressed concern that the commitment of $1.34 billion for the land purchase would harm the rest of the Everglades restoration program by diverting funds that are needed for projects already on the drawing board. Buermann says he expects to be able to sell surplus land once the water district has determined how much is required to establish the land link to move water from Lake Okeechobee into the lower Glades to replicate the historic sheetflow of water necessary to maintain the ecosystem. The proceeds from that sale can be applied to fund the other work, he says.