Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fla. could run out of land-buying money by Oct. 1

Florida could be out of money for buying conservation lands by Oct. 1 unless new bonds are issued to allow purchases.

The Florida Forever land-buying program is the largest in the nation. But the state has delayed borrowing money -- despite Legislative approval to do so -- because of the weak bond market, according to Deborah Poppell, director of DEP's Division of State Lands.

So the Florida Forever Trust Fund, which had $87 million remaining recently, could run out of money by Oct. 1, Poppell told the state Acquisition and Restoration Council last week.

"The Division of Bond Finance lets us know (when) the market is good enough where we can draw down bonds again or get bonds." Poppell told

"It might be late fall, (or) late late fall," she said. "It might be the first of the year."

But DEP also said the remaining trust fund balance is not unusually low. The department will continue to work toward land acquisitions as long as there is some money is available, DEP spokeswoman Amy Graham said.

Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance, could not be reached this week to comment on when new Florida Forever bonds could be issued.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet next Tuesday will be asked to approve a new state lands purchase list with new projects and expanded boundaries for existing projects. But much of the money appropriated last year already has been committed -- before the bonds have been issued.

Under Florida Forever and its predecessor program, Preservation 2000, the state has bought 2.6 million acres since 1990. The land includes state forests, state and local parks, water management district lands, state wildlife preserves and preservation agreements with private landowners.

The Legislature this year provided no money for the land-buying program, which had received $300 million a year since 1990. The Legislature was facing a revenue shortfall because of the slow economy, but some critics also say the state has borrowed too much or has bought too much land already.

Environmental groups say conservation lands are needed to protect water supplies and wildlife and provide recreational opportunities when growth resumes in Florida. And they say the state is missing the opportunity to buy land now with prices going down.

The Legislature in FY 2008-09 provided $300 million in bonding authority but only $50 million in bonds were issued, Poppell said. A weak bond market meant the state would have had to pay more in interest to borrow the remaining $250 million.

Even if new bonds are issued, there may be few new land deals involving DEP's $105 million portion of Florida Forever. Of the $97 million remaining unspent (once bonds are issued), all but $21.8 million has been obligated to other purchases or expenses.

The lack of cash on hand from last year and the lack of new money this year will create uncertainty for landowners willing to sell and for communities that want to submit grant requests to the state, said Andrew McLeod of The Nature Conservancy.

"It's particularly regrettable because this is the most favorable market for conservation in a long time," he said. "It obviously coincides with a recession. But the state is not in a position to maximize the current real estate dip for the purposes of conservation."

(Story text and photograph copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do no copy or redistribute without permission.)

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