A bill that would allow the Cabinet to give away state parks and other conservation lands to neighboring agricultural landowners passed the House with opposition from some Democrats.
Environmentalists oppose HB 7135 although they said it had been improved in earlier committee stops by requiring proposed giveaways to be reviewed by the Acquisition and Restoration Council. The bill also requires managers of parks and other state lands to review property for disposal or use for “low impact” agriculture.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers, previously said the bill would result in more conservation by requiring the giveaway sonly to those adjacent landowners who agree to maintain both properties.
But Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach, said Thursday the bill raises concerns about state constitutional requirements that agency governing boards determine that land no longer is needed for conservation. And he said giving away state land in exchange for conservation on private property could be a bad deal.
Florida buys conservation land for $6,400 per acre but pays only $1,300 per acre for conservation easements, which involvements by landowners to not develop their property.
“That means for every acre exchanged in this way the state is potentially giving away $5,100,” Pafford said.
“I don’t believe the sponsor — his intent — is questioned,” Pafford said. “But I do think there is a financial responsibility the state needs to be monitoring, and I don’t think the bill protects the taxpayer in that way.”
Caldwell did not respond to Pafford in his closing statement. The bill passed the House 88-24 without further debate.
Environmental groups say the House bill is improved but they still oppose it because they don’t want the state to give away conservation land.
They prefer the Senate version, SB 7086, which doesn’t include the land giveaway provision.
Environmental groups on Tuesday failed to persuade a Senate committee not to include state parks in the requirement that lands be reviewed for disposal or use by low impact agriculture.
Caldwell said the state already has a process for reviewing its lands for disposal and the bill would just make that part of the review criteria. He also said low impact agriculture, such as cattle grazing, could help the state manage its lands.
“So if we buy this on day one and we’re not going to have money for the native (plant) restoration for another year or two, you don’t want to leave it to just sit there,” Caldwell said. “Brazilian pepper is going to grow into the field. You are better off just to let the cows keep grazing until you can do restoration.”
Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.