US Sugar Everglades land sale delayed over details

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. Declaring the proposal "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park," Republican Gov. Charlie Crist made the announcement about the deal in June while standing in the Everglades. The initial announcement said the state would buy some 300 square miles of U.S. Sugar's holdings in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, including its cane fields, mill, refining facilities, citrus groves, and railroad line.

U.S. Sugar would be allowed to farm the 187,000 acres for six more years, after which it would go out of business, leaving some 1,700 workers unemployed.

The state would then protect the land from development, which has been encroaching on the Everglades for decades.

Officials said in June they planned to sign a contract on the deal by November.

It likely won't happen now until sometime in 2009, according to officials with the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees Everglades restoration for the state.

The district had planned to borrow the money through bonds for the deal and pay off the debt with property taxes from its 16 county region stretching from Orlando to the Keys.

Officials now say they are hoping to negotiate simultaneous sales of some of U.S. Sugar's assets, such as its mill and railroad, before completing the sale. They also say they are seeking partners in the purchase.

"The word is out on the street and they know that we will not be holding onto these assets," Ruth Clements, the district's director of land acquisition, told board members on Wednesday. State officials have said they also planned to build a network of reservoirs and marshes on the land to filter water flowing into the Everglades and help restore the River of Grass to a cleaner, more natural state.

For generations, farming and development have blocked the natural flow of water and allowed fertilizers and other pollutants to spill into the wetlands, slowly killing the ecosystem.

But just how long it will take to seal the deal remains unclear. The deal would not end sugar production in the Everglades. Some 300,000 acres of land, or close to 500 square miles, used by other companies would remain in production.

Still, many residents in the region around U.S. Sugar's land, communities that have relied on the company as an economic engine for decades, fear its shutdown will ruin their livelihoods.

"I'm a lifer here, and would like to be a real lifer, but I'm concerned that I may be displaced by all of this," said attorney Melanie McGahee, from Clewiston, where U.S. Sugar is based. "We're sitting out here as business owners and longtime residents and families and not knowing what our future holds."

McGahee said she is concerned that many people, including environmentalists who have hailed this deal as a huge step forward for the Everglades, will simply see the people of Clewiston "as a small price to pay."

"But we are 6,000 families out here," she said.

The multibillion Everglades restoration effort, bogged down for years by bureaucracy, funding shortfalls and missteps, is the largest of its kind in the world. It is aimed at undoing or rerouting decades of flood-control projects that were built to make way for houses and farms.

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