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Group slams conservation deal

A state plan to pay Lykes Bros. Inc. to preserve 24,000 acres in South Florida is not restrictive enough and is a bad deal for taxpayers, Earthjustice says.

Published August 16, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The state plans to pay $23-million to Tampa's Lykes Bros. Inc. to protect 24,000 acres in South Florida from developers.

But a national environmental group is crying foul, saying the deal will allow Lykes to drill for oil and gas, subdivide the area into 22 farms, spray pesticides, drill commercial well fields and build large reservoirs to store water.

The deal doesn't give Florida taxpayers enough conservation for their money, Earthjustice complained Friday.

Under Florida's conservation easement program, the state uses tax money to pay landowners not to develop.

It's a way to preserve green space without actually buying land. The price of the Lykes' 24,000-acre conservation easement in Glades County works out to about $964 an acre.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet are set to vote on the proposal Aug. 26.

The deal was negotiated by another environmental group - the Nature Conservancy - and by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Nature Conservancy will earn a $100,000 fee for conveying the option to the state, according to state documents.

DEP is recommending approval.

The conservation easement is part of an effort to preserve Lykes Bros.' vast holdings in Glades, west of Lake Okeechobee, along 50-mile-long Fisheating Creek. It is rich with wildlife and strategically placed near the massive public works project to replumb the Florida Everglades.

"This is nothing more than a raid on preservation dollars," said David Guest, a lawyer representing Earthjustice who has been in court battles with Lykes for years.

The battles began in the late 1980s, when Lykes felled cypress trees across Fisheating Creek, strung barbed wire and hired guards to keep the public away.

The company said intruders were damaging its property.

Environmental groups sued Lykes to reopen the creek. They were joined by Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who argued that the creek belonged to the public, not to a private company.

In a 1997 trial, Lykes lost but appealed. The case threatened to drag on for years, but all sides settled in 1999. The state got 18,000 acres outright, and Lykes agreed to restrictions on another 42,000 acres.

State lands director Eva Armstrong defended the new conservation easement, saying it will keep a huge chunk of South Florida rural and provide wildlife habitat.

"Could it be subdivided into 22 parcels of farmland? Yes. Will it be developed into 5-acre ranchettes? No," Armstrong said. "What we're in the business of is buying up the development rights."

Guest called it a sweetheart deal for Lykes, and questioned whether the company really has plans to develop in such a rural area.

"The place is so remote that even the cows are lonely," Guest said. "What does the public get for $23-million? Damn near nothing."

Lykes spokeswoman Beth Waters said she was surprised by the criticism.

"It is false to represent that this easement is going to cause environmental harm versus conserving the land," she said.

Waters said Lykes would need state approval to do anything such as drilling wells or building reservoirs. She said it's not unusual for landowners to retain oil and gas rights when they sell conservation easements.

Waters pointed out that the agreement contains numerous environmental safeguards. Any industrial uses, such as oil, gas or water drilling, would have to occur on already developed land , she said. The natural areas would be left alone.

[Last modified August 16, 2003, 01:47:29]

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