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    Agencies covet state land

    Government agencies ask for slices of land bought for preservation, often to deal with past planning mistakes.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


    Jonathan Dickinson State Park contains a wild river, lots of endangered plants and animals and some of the state's finest scrub habitat, largely wiped out by development elsewhere in Florida.

    Soon, the 11,000-acre state park near Tequesta may contain something seen in few other parks: a stormwater treatment system to fix the drainage woes of homeowners outside its boundaries.

    The $2-million stormwater project may obliterate the nation's largest colony of one type of endangered plants, as well as destroy the homes of gopher tortoises and scrub jays. But Martin County officials insist they need to take 23 acres from the park to alleviate flooding in a subdivision next door.

    The Jonathan Dickinson stormwater project is just one in a series of attempts in recent months to chip away at the 4-million acres the state has bought for environmental preservation.

    "Clearly we are starting to see a wave of this," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.

    Key Biscayne is lobbying to build ball fields in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where the state just spent millions restoring the native vegetation destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. The St. Johns River Water Management District wants to solve drainage problems in a Melbourne development by putting stormwater treatment ponds in the Archie Carr Sea Turtle Refuge. The U.S. Navy wants to put up a two-story building and a 100-foot tower at St. Andrews State Park near Panama City.

    "People are starting to get concerned because all these little runs are being made at state land, and each one sets another small precedent," said Marianne Gengenbach of the Nature Conservancy.

    Most of the requests for a slice of state land are coming from government agencies grappling with past planning mistakes.

    "I think there are a lot of situations throughout Florida where we're paying for the sins of our forefathers for not doing proper planning or code enforcement," said Jack Moller, vice chairman of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which advises the Cabinet on state lands.

    That infuriates environmental advocates such as Judy Hancock of the Sierra Club.

    "They shouldn't be coming to state lands to solve their problems," Hancock fumed. "That's not what these lands are being bought for."

    * * *

    For as long as the state has been buying land for parks, state officials have been letting some of it be used for less lofty pursuits -- limerock mines and phosphate pits, for instance.

    But in 1987, when Hernando County officials asked for 60 acres of the Withlacoochee State Forest for a landfill, then-Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet took a stand for preserving state lands. Martinez, a Republican, said there was "a broader issue here than where you put the garbage."

    Yet government agencies have continued asking for park property. Walton County officials spent years battling environmental groups for permission to build a new town in Point Washington State Forest. The state Department of Corrections lost a fight to build a prison in Tate's Hell Swamp.

    Each attempt stirred a fresh debate about the state's purpose in buying parks: Should they be preserved forever, or can some of the land be jettisoned?

    Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles argued that the state should not lock itself into preserving land forever. He openly mocked environmental groups who tried to block the Walton County and Tate's Hell projects, saying they were acting as if losing a few acres to development would "break the world."

    The state now insists that when it sells off some park land, there must be a 2-for-1 swap. That's what happened last month, when Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet gave the Future Farmers of America 12 acres of high-quality scrub at Catfish Creek State Preserve, which until last May was home to a wandering Florida panther.

    The FFA plans to turn the Polk County park land into dormitories for its Leadership Training Center. State officials say it's a good deal: In exchange for its property and $27,500, the state will get twice as much acreage -- although it will be lakefront land suitable for recreation, not rare scrub.

    * * *

    Mark Glisson, the Acquisition and Restoration Council's staff director, contends there is no sudden surge in demand for putting parks to other uses. The apparent increase, he said, is just a backlog that built up because of a five-month gap between the demise of the old state lands committee under Chiles and the start of the new council, appointed by Bush in May.

    But Hancock and others contend that not only is there a surge, but the council so far has not turned down a single request.

    Just last month, the council approved the Navy's tower at St. Andrews State Recreation Area and the drainage projects at Archie Carr Sea Turtle Refuge and Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Although council members had qualms about all three, Moller said, they had little choice.

    "We're put in kind of a hard spot," Moller said. "The whole problem is a lack of planning -- but what are we going to do, let people's houses flood?"

    Navy officials said they needed about half an acre of the St. Andrews coastal scrub to build facilities for monitoring tests in the Gulf of Mexico six to eight times a year. State Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, personally lobbied the council for the project.

    Although other tower sites are available, Navy officials said beachfront development had impaired their suitability.

    As for the Archie Carr project, St. Johns River Water Management District officials said they needed 5 acres of its maritime hammocks to solve drainage woes in an adjacent subdivision that had been poorly designed. They said they had no alternatives.

    Of the three, Hancock said, the Jonathan Dickinson deal was "the most egregious."

    Martin County officials said they had no choice but to ask for the Jonathan Dickinson scrub land to fix the flooding in the Tropic Vista subdivision.

    But council member Hilary Swain, director of the Archbold Biological Research Station, contended they could have intruded on a golf course or unused cemetery land. And she said the county's assessment of the environmental impact failed to note that it would wipe out the largest population of federally endangered reindeer lichen in the United States.

    Yet state officials pushed the project, noting during the meeting that there was "strong legislative interest" in seeing it approved. Last week, Glisson said there had been "no undue influence" by state Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

    County officials say they are making their project more environmentally friendly -- for instance, designing a large drainage ditch to snake around some of the lichens. That's not good enough for Hancock.

    "Instead of trying to make bad projects better," she said, "we should just be saying no."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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