NY Times takes down Charlie Crist over Everglades-U.S. Sugar deal

The Times story comes two days after the Miami Herald produced their own massive article on the problems with trying to finance the scaled down plan.

Both stories highlight the role of Crist's good buddy, the accidental Senator, George LeMieux in the deal.  LeMieux  at the time of the negotiations was serving as the governor's chief of staff as well as working with the law firm of Gunster,Yoakley & Stewart, who were representing U.S. Sugar in the deal (LeMieux graciously offered to recuse himself at Gunster during that time).  Gunster will receive tens of millions of dollars in fees for the sale, the Times adds.

The New York Times story includes a choice blast of the deal by former Governor Jeb Bush, who says he was "disappointed by the deal," adding:

To replace projects that were under way for a possibility of a project decades from now is not a good trade,” Mr. Bush said. “On a net basis, this appears to me there has been a replacement of science-based environmental policy for photo-op environmental policy.”

The Times story quotes some environmentalists who are critical of the deal, but writes that others are simply holding their tongue:

Criticism from other environmentalists, though, has been muted. Some have acknowledged concerns, but do not want to say anything that might help kill what would be the largest land purchase ever for the Everglades. With the state retaining an option to buy the rest of United States Sugar’s land, there also remains a romantic adherence in some quarters to the dream of a restored river of grass from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

The South Florida Water Management District is scheduled to discuss if they can even afford the scaled down $536 million sale at a board meeting later this week.

also with his good buddy, Florida's current acting junior U.S. Senator, George LeMieux.

It was 21 months ago when one of the biggest conservation deals in U.S. history was announced; The state of Florida would buy  U.S. Sugar's holdings in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, including its cane fields, mill and railroad line. U.S. Sugar would be allowed to farm the 187,000 acres for six more years, after which it would go out of business. Cost to Floridians?  $1.75 billion.

Those plans have been revised since then, with the state reducing its purchase of U.S. Sugar's land to 72,800 acres for $536 million.  But according to a blockbuster story written today in the New York Times by investigative reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Damien Cave,  the state and Governor Charlie Crist were suckered into an awful deal that is "rescuing the fortunes of U.S. Sugar", but setting back the plan of fully restoring the Everglades.

The story, coming in at over 4.200 words, is critical of Crist, and the state's Department of Environmental Protection, for paying way more than they should have for the land.

But internal district documents revealed that the land had been overvalued by the two firms that performed the independent appraisals. Both relied on figures from 2004 to 2008, when a speculative real estate market had prices soaring.

If the current prices had been used, the state would be paying far less. For example, while the water district agreed to pay United States Sugar nearly $7,000 an acre for citrus land, it is now selling for $4,000 an acre, independent appraisers said recently in interviews.

The two outside appraisal firms used by the district — Anderson & Carr, of West Palm Beach, Fla., and Sewell, Valentich, Tillis & Associates, of Sarasota — came up with almost identical figures of around $1.3 billion, a rarity that raised some eyebrows.

“When I had heard that number, I couldn’t swallow it — it was an unbelievable number,” said Woody Hanson, a land appraiser in Fort Myers with extensive experience in the Everglades. “Then I looked closely at the appraisals to test them for reasonableness and, wow, there is just no way it makes sense for the taxpayers.”

Neither appraisal firm used by the district would comment.

Eric Buermann, chairman of the district’s advisory board, defended the appraisals but acknowledged that they had used outdated values. “At the time we had to make the decision,” he said, “those were the latest, best numbers available.”

Yet when the appraisals were updated in 2009, they still relied on sale prices from 2004 to 2006, documents showed. District officials said the appraisers assured them that prices had held steady.

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