Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Harbor Branch land deal returns to Cabinet

A special land deal involving the Legislature, Florida Atlantic University and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Foundation goes back before the governor and Cabinet on Wednesday.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is requesting consideration of a new purchase agreement for 134.74 acres in St. Lucie County along Indian River Lagoon. With approval, the state could proceed with buying the land from the Harbor Branch foundation for $18 million.

The Legislature in 2008 approved a separate appropriation of $18 million for buying land in addition to $105 million provided to DEP for conservation purchases. Although it wasn't designated for any specific purchase, it was recorded in DEP reports as being for the Harbor Branch property.

The separate appropriation "provided an excellent opportunity to proceed with this acquisition," DEP Press Secretary Terri Durdaller said today in an e-mail.

Ken Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie who was Senate president from 2006 to 2008, supported the purchase in 2008 before the state Acquisition and Restoration Council, which recommended adding a portion of the property to the state purchase list. An additional 296 acres of Harbor Branch property earlier had become part of the Indian River Lagoon Blueway purchase project.

The governor and Cabinet approved the purchase last May at the urging of former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who was then president of FAU and is now chancellor of the State University System. FAU has been designated to manage the property.

The proposal comes back to the Cabinet because of uncertainty over access across a railroad track.

Pruitt today defended the proposed purchase, saying it already had undergone a "rigorous review" through the ARC council and the governor and Cabinet.

"This is a great project," he said. "It's a great asset for Florida."

The Florida Communities Trust program agreed in 2007 to buy 268 acres of the adjoining Harbor Branch property for $6.3 million. That property will be managed by St. Lucie County.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

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