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Sugar deal may be going sour

Get rid of cane fields to help restore the Everglades? The Florida governor's big plan faces big doubts.

December 15, 2008|Richard Fausset | Fausset is a Times staff writer.

CLEWISTON, FLA. — The mayor of the place that bills itself as "America's sweetest town" has learned to love the stench that wafts from the United States Sugar Corp.'s gigantic mill near the mucky banks of Lake Okeechobee.

"To us," said Clewiston Mayor Mali Chamness, "it smells like money."

For decades, sugar has been the main economic driver of this isolated farming city of 6,800 people.

Today, however, locals fear the industry, and its attendant smells, will dissipate for good if Gov. Charlie Crist succeeds in converting the surrounding cane fields into an ambitious restoration project for the Florida Everglades.

If the state buys the land -- and sugar production disappears -- Chamness wonders whether Clewiston will disappear along with it.

"We can't survive without the land," she said.

But a bitter small-town mayor is the least of the problems plaguing the $1.3-billion project.

When Crist announced the plan in June, it was met with much fanfare and was widely seen as a legacy-defining gambit for the popular Republican governor.

In recent months, however, critics and complications have emerged that may threaten the plan's chances of approval by a state water board, which is slated to vote on it Tuesday.

Particularly problematic is the economic mess beyond Clewiston's borders: The world financial meltdown has struck Florida particularly hard, saddling the state with a $5.8-billion budget shortfall.

Last week, a number of state legislators questioned the wisdom of borrowing the money to fund a 181,000-acre land deal during such uncertain times.

State Rep. Juan C. Zapata, a Miami Republican, noted that several billion dollars in extra funding would be needed to convert the land for restoration purposes. But he said no plan existed for raising the funds.

"I'm not questioning its environmental value," Zapata said. "But there are a lot of moving parts here, and there are a lot of unintended consequences we might not foresee."

The doubt has spread to the board of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency that must evaluate and approve the deal for the state.

In an interview Friday, board Chairman Eric Buermann said he had not decided how he would vote. He was torn, he said, between Florida's depressing fiscal realities and the rare chance to reclaim such a large and essential swath of the state's troubled ecosystem.

"The vision is wonderful, and it's something we've all dreamed about," he said. "But since the governor first conceived of this and asked us to analyze it, the economy has taken an earthshaking turn. . . . We don't want our legacy to be that we bankrupted our agency."

The water district, which represents 16 counties in South Florida, would finance the deal largely through "certificates of participation," which are similar to bonds. The borrowed money would be repaid over time from property tax revenue.

District officials had previously asserted that they wouldn't have to raise taxes to pay for the project. But Buermann said Friday that he could not make that promise, given the instability in Florida's real estate market.

The fate of the plan could affect the future political prospects of Crist, who is often mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate in 2012 or beyond.

In announcing the buyout, Crist said it was "in the tradition of the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt."

Some see the move as a way for Crist -- an abortion opponent and gun rights advocate -- to reclaim the mantle of environmentalism for the GOP, and perhaps to redefine a struggling national party.

"This would be a way, if he could pull it off, to maintain his base of support and steal the issue from the Democrats," said Michael Martinez, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

Crist, who was married Friday in St. Petersburg, could not be reached for comment.

Many environmentalists continue to cheer the plan.

U.S. Sugar's vast land holdings lie in the flat, mineral-rich muckland between freshwater Lake Okeechobee to the north and the protected but threatened wetlands to the south.

The water district hopes to store large amounts of water on the property and build artificial filtering marshes that would clean the southward-flowing water of phosphorus, a mineral in fertilizer, that has proven detrimental to the habitats of birds, alligators and other wildlife.

"It's absolutely vital," E. Thom Rumberger, head of the Everglades Trust, said of the deal. "Everything that's ever been done in the Everglades has always been limited because we couldn't intrude into the agriculture."

The state Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative has criticized the deal. The group is worried that the buyout will stifle competition because it would allow U.S. Sugar to lease the land back at below-market rates for seven years before it is turned over for conservation purposes.

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