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SAVING PARADISE WITH THE PURSE
SAVING PARADISE WITH THE PURSE

If one is inclined to search for a bright side to the vast environmental carnage left in the wake of Florida's growth machine, there's some legitimate good news out there.


For one thing, what's been lost forever to urbanization only serves to highlight the magnificence yet to be saved. Tens of thousands of acres of Florida contain some of the most diverse, and relatively healthy wild areas in the world, even though biologists say these places represent the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S.

Florida's considerable natural treasures yet to be saved or ruined are well known not just among environmentalists but also throughout the highest echelons of state government. Since 1960, the state has spent upwards of $8 billion to buy up more than five million acres—about 14 percent of the entire state—for conservation. Florida's reliance on its checkbook as a sure-fire tool for protecting Florida's environment from a rising tide of residents is the focus of a study by FSU researcher Harrison Higgins and grad student Neil Paradise. Their findings appear as a chapter in FSU's new growth management book, Growth Management in Florida: Planning for Paradise.

The study focuses on Florida Forever, the latest incarnation of Florida's land-preserving campaigns. Created by an act of the 1999 state legislature, Florida Forever is the largest, most ambitious state-run land acquisition program in U.S. history. Lawmakers authorized the program to fund itself through 2010 by selling $300 million in bonds.

Run by the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of State Lands, the program is the outgrowth of highly popular initiatives that since 1990 have put 2.3 million acres of land permanently beyond the reach of development.

Easily the largest and most expensive land deal Florida Forever has made so far is a 2006 purchase of the lion's share of the 91,361-acre Babcock Ranch, located on the edge of the Great Cypress Preserve in Southwest Florida's Lee County. The state paid $310 million (supplemented by another $40 million from Lee County) for 73,236 acres, home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the Florida panther. The key to the final purchase: Florida had to agree to allow developers to turn 17,000 acres of the original tract into a brand new town site designed for 50,000 residents. While the trade-off irked many, most environmental groups in Florida hailed the transaction as a landmark case in the long fight to keep the state's remaining wilderness from being destroyed.

Higgins and Paradise write that Florida Forever and its predecessor programs, while laudable, demonstrate a disconnect between the original intent of Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act and what has since become public policy. Managers of Florida Forever have "implicitly assumed that land acquisition is the only means" the state has for protecting what's left of its natural areas, they argue.

By ignoring "the ability of growth management controls" to keep wild areas from being destroyed, the authors assert, the state risks undermining the efficiency of land acquisition deals, resulting in the state potentially paying owners more than their property is worth. Moreover, by chucking its own growth management guidelines and buying up land willy-nilly, the state is creating attractive, developable real estate adjacent to people-sensitive wild areas—in other words, opening the door to the chief bane of growth, urban sprawl.

The authors suggest that the Babcock Ranch purchase may yet prove to be a prime example of what can happen when well-meaning bureaucrats, in their land-saving zeal, disregard solid growth management fundamentals. Higgins and Paradise conclude: "While some groups argued that the opportunity to preserve over 70,000 acres was too good to pass up, others believed it was a Faustian tradeoff, one that would bring substantial development in the form of leapfrogging sprawl to a rural area of the state."

Meanwhile, Florida Forever itself may not be forever. If the Legislature doesn't reauthorize the program it will expire in 2010. With recession fears making lawmakers nervous, backers of the program sense a tough battle ahead to keep Florida's premier land-acquisition machine in gear. Ironically, this comes at a time when the state's real estate meltdown is creating real bargains in rural lands. —P.N.