July 31, 2008

Environmental Groups Want to Enact Development Protections With U.S. Sugar Deal

By Andy Reid, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Jul. 31--In the midst of the state's buyout negotiations with U.S. Sugar, a coalition of environmental groups on Wednesday called for a moratorium on development that could create new obstacles to Everglades restoration.

The state by November hopes to finalize a $1.75 billion deal to buy U.S. Sugar's 187,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area and re-create the flow of water that once linked Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

In the meantime, a group of more than 40 local and national environmental organizations has called for cities, counties and the state to put the brakes on any development proposals, land deals or other projects that could get in the way of Everglades restoration after the U.S. Sugar deal is done.

"Actually study the area ... have a grand master plan," said David Reiner, president of Friends of the Everglades. "There is no end game yet."

The recommendations issued Wednesday by the Everglades Coalition and the Everglades Foundation include:

--A moratorium on approving new development, mining or "other changes in use" in the Everglades Agricultural Area until restoration plans are revamped;

--Holding off on any approvals for an "inland port" near Belle Glade that would use trains and trucks to transport freight across the state from ships at the Port of Palm Beach;

--Designating the agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee an "Area of Critical State Concern," which brings development rules and protections similar to those in place in the Florida Keys.

Those standards could hurt Palm Beach County's plans for a new western landfill. They would also at least delay the proposed inland port distribution center and other economic development ideas suggested as ways for Glades communities to compensate for losing U.S. Sugar jobs.

"This is basically asking for a decade delay," Administrator Bob Weisman said.

The U.S. Sugar deal aims to restore a huge swath of the Everglades Agricultural Area, 700,000 acres of former Everglades land drained to make way for farming. The state proposes buying out U.S. Sugar and potentially swapping land with other cane growers to re-create the lost link that once allowed water to flow from the lake to the Everglades.

Environmental groups want to ensure that those land swaps don't allow new polluters and restoration impediments to move into the agricultural area.

Agriculture can still have a place in the Glades after the U.S. Sugar deal and the area should not be thrown open to development to compensate for lost jobs, Audubon of Florida lobbyist Eric Draper said.

"We don't think that the Glades communities should be shut down," Draper said. "But we don't want to see ad hoc development take place."

Andy Reid can be reached at [email protected] or 561-228-5504.


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