Underwater land flip costs state $7.2-million

Published May 12, 2007

MIAMI - They had a contract to buy 6 acres of the Biscayne Bay bottom and a deal to sell it to the state. They were one step away from $7.2-million.

That's how much Miami developers Warren Sands and Bob Robinson would collect - if the governor and the Legislature would agree to the deal.

This was a job for the lobbyists.

Sands and Robinson were buying - and selling - 6 acres of underwater real estate off the Coral Gables shoreline. The property was a paradox: platted and zoned for 18 homes 50 years ago, then encased in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Reserve and shielded from development two decades after that.

Sands and Robinson had a contract to buy the property from an 81-year-old widow and her family for $445, 000. The family members say they didn't know about the developers' negotiations with the state. State lawyers say they didn't know about the family's contract.

In February 2004, lawyers with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection - fearing an expensive "takings" lawsuit from developers who were barred from building - offered to buy the property after it was appraised for $7.2-million. Sands and Robinson accepted the deal.

One question remained for the state lawyers: How would the state pay for it?

The DEP spends millions of dollars buying vulnerable wetlands every year. But the DEP does not set aside money to purchase submerged lands.

Enter the lobbyists.

Their team included three Tallahassee lawyers and Miami lobbyist Rodney Barreto, who also is chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The lobbyists and DEP staffers agreed to take the money from the Florida Forever land-acquisition fund, which has been used in recent years to buy property for environmental salvage efforts.

When DEP officials brought the idea to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, he nixed it.

So sue us, DEP lawyers said. The developers did.

Sands and Robinson purchased the underwater property in July 2004 and filed their suit a month later.

Settlement talks resumed, and they reached an agreement in September 2005. This time, the $7.2-million would have to be approved by the Legislature.

So Sands and Robinson hired another well-connected lobbyist: Jim Smith, a former state attorney general and two-time gubernatorial candidate who served briefly as secretary of state in 2002.

Neither Barreto nor Smith responded to requests for interviews for this article.

DEP officials added a line to the agency's annual budget to pay for the lots. But the item was flagged by the governor's office.

Bush again threatened to kill the deal because of the price.

A key committee chairman also raised questions. Then-DEP Secretary Colleen Castille suggested to Bush that they try to reduce the amount to $2.5-million "to make (the) problem go away, " e-mail records show.

Castille said she later agreed to $7.2-million, siding with staff lawyers who said a trial was too risky.

Ultimately, Bush relented, and the Legislature approved the money.

The state took possession of Gables Under the Sea on July 28, ensuring the preservation of the sea grass beds. Sands and Robinson finally pulled a $7.2-million fortune from Biscayne Bay.

At home in Georgia, Laura Santa Maria was unaware of it all.

She still recalls standing thigh-deep in water on her family's property, looking across the bay to the millionaires' colony of Key Biscayne. She once thought her family caught a lucky break when Sands and Robinson agreed to buy the property for $445, 000. Now she calls it a pittance.

"I was happy enough to get what I got because my husband was gone, and I could have used the money, " she said. "It would have been nice to get a million. I would have been happy with a million."