Commentary

Florida water agency caught trying to get rid of important parkland

Hidden item on the agenda makes one wonder if there’s a hidden agenda

June 30, 2022 7:00 am

Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park would have lost acreage under a sale contemplated by the St. Johns Water Management Agency. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever misplaced something important? People do this all the time in Florida. They lose track of their money, their pants, their basic dignity — sometimes all in one night.

Four years ago, I was supposed to drive a vanload of smelly Boy Scouts — including my own pair — back home from a very warm week at a summer camp in Georgia. We were packed and ready to hit the road (with all the windows down) when I discovered the van keys had disappeared.

Everyone spent a frantic half an hour searching the grounds. When the keys finally turned up, they weren’t on the ground. They had wound up in the back of the van, under some equipment we’d packed.

I picked up an eerily similar vibe from something that happened recently involving one of Florida’s five water management districts. Those are the folks in charge of protecting the state’s water supply. A key part of that is buying watershed land for conservation purposes.

Yet the St. Johns River Water Management District somehow lost track of what it had done with 18,000 acres.

That’s right, 18,000 acres. The district misplaced 127 parcels scattered from Jacksonville to Orlando, including part of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (where “preserve” is part of the name) and other  properties important to the agency’s water protection efforts.

Worse, the water district very nearly put all that land up for sale.

You know how hot the Florida real estate market is these days. You could stick a “for sale” sign on a cardboard box and you’d be trampled by a horde of investors wanting to buy it, tear it down and build a two-story replacement to sell for $1.3 million.

Fortunately for everyone, a hawk-eyed Audubon Florida employee named Chris Farrell spotted the item on the water board’s agenda. He realized something was amiss and started raising questions.

Chris Farrell, Audubon Society

Farrell also alerted his boss at Audubon Florida, executive director Julie Wraithmell. Soon, other environmental groups and local government officials who oversee some of this state property were waving red flags as well.

If it hadn’t been for Farrell, said Wraithmell, “it would have passed. Nobody else was watching it.”

Instead, the water agency’s executive director, Mike Register, admitted it was a mistake and pulled the item from the agenda.

What I couldn’t figure out — as with the keys in the van — was how this could have happened.

How to hide a hidden agenda

As a newspaper reporter, I spent nearly four decades covering local government agency meetings. For hours, I numbed my rump sitting through long, dull conversations about millage rates, drainage problems, and sewer hook-ups.

I was there because Florida has a Government in the Sunshine Law that requires records and meetings to be open to the public. That way people know how their tax dollars are being spent, even when their public servants would prefer to keep it a secret.

After a while, I noticed that when government officials wanted to hide something, they had a few tricks for getting around the Sunshine Law. One of them was to stick the item on what was called “the consent agenda.”

That’s the part of the agenda that the public and lazy reporters usually skip over. It’s for unimportant stuff like, say, renting Port-A-Potties for a festival. Instead of taking each item by itself, the board votes for the whole consent agenda all at once.

Sometimes, checking the consent agenda yielded some pretty wild stories.

For instance, the Southwest Florida Water Management District once sued a gun range for pollution violations. In response, the National Rifle Association’s top Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion “I Like Gun Butts and I Cannot Lie” Hammer called for the agency nicknamed “Swiftmud” to be abolished.

Hammer was the most powerful lobbyist in the state, so this was no idle threat. The 4-foot-11 pistol-packing grandma could twitch an eyebrow and make any state agency cry, “Please Hammer, don’t hurt me!”

Swiftmud’s decision to drop the suit was slipped into the consent agenda at the last minute. It passed quietly and when I asked questions, nobody wanted to talk about it.

The consent agenda for the June 14 St. Johns water district governing board meeting is where Farrell found this odd clue about the conservation land. Under Item No. 17, all it said was, “Consideration: Approve the District’s Land Acquisition Plan and the Real Property Surplus List.”

Farrell told me he knew there’d been some discussion about declaring a few parcels of poor quality land to be surplus. Then it could be sold and the money used to buy better land. At least, that was the theory.

The description of what was being put up for sale offered few specifics: “The results of staff’s parcel by parcel evaluation identified 18,637.66 acres, or 127 potential parcels with the greatest marketable value for surplus. These properties will be offered for sale … .”

Such a large amount of land raised Farrell’s eyebrows. When he turned to the list of properties, “all they had was a spreadsheet — no maps,” Farrell said.

The spreadsheet gave property numbers with little further description. It was as if the water board’s staff was doing its darnedest to discourage the public from finding out what properties would wind up on the auction block.

Farrell painstakingly looked up the numbers, he said, and “there were some shocking ones there.”

Hal Scott Regional Park and Reserve. Credit: SJRWMD

For instance, one parcel contained 1,810 acres of the 8,832-acre Hal Scott Regional Preserve in Orange County, which the water district’s own website calls “an oasis in the rapidly developing Orlando area.”

Some parcels had cryptic notes from the staff, such as this one on a large parcel in Alachua County: “Sell unencumbered. Property suitable for agriculture or residential use.”

It was much more suitable for a park, but the water district staff apparently hadn’t considered that. They had their mind on the money and the money on their mind.

At the behest of Scott-bots

Something similar happened a decade ago when Rick Scott was governor. I refer to that era as “The Mad Slasher Years,” because Scott and his eager-to-please minions treated environmental programs the way a horror movie murderer treats a bunch of teenagers.

For years, through state programs such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, the Legislature invested $300 million a year in buying environmentally sensitive land. The land-buying programs were immensely popular with the public.

They were also part of the reason Florida’s state park system won the National Recreation and Parks Association gold medal for excellence four times — the only state park system in the nation to rack up that many medals. If I were ever named state parks director, I’d strut around with those gold medals around my neck like Flavor Flav with his clock.

Former governor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. U.S. Senate

But Rapmaster Rick was all about the Benjamins. In response to his demand for massive budget cuts from state agencies, his Department of Environmental Protection proposed closing a third of the state parks. After an outcry, Scott decided against that.

Then came proposals to add things to the parks — golf courses and hotels, R.V. campsites run by private contractors, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, even hunting.

Scott appointees did this because they were trying like obedient robots to carry out a nonsensical assignment: help their boss make good on his campaign promise of creating 700,000 new jobs (even as he laid off hundreds of experienced scientists).

The choice of which parks would get these “supplements” was, according to internal emails, the result of what one official called “a fast assessment done to meet a very short deadline.” Once again, the public screamed bloody murder and put the kibosh on Scott’s effort.

Then came the craziest idea of all: Declaring as surplus enough state land to sell off to raise $50 million to buy better properties.

Nine months of controversy ensued. The state’s initial list of 169 properties covering about 5,000 acres repeatedly ran into opposition from a lot of people who cared a lot about their local state parks.

In the end, not one single parcel was sold. The two state officials in charge resigned. The DEP announced the end of the effort via a press release sent out at 6 p.m. on a Friday — a sure sign of bureaucratic embarrassment.

At the behest of the Scott-bots, the St. Johns water board went through an identical (and identically frustrating) exercise in 2012. The agency’s staff searched for any land that could be declared surplus and sold off. In the end, the agency concluded that it could spare just 1 percent of its conservation land.

The thing those Scott-omatons couldn’t get through their brain circuits was that, in Florida, very little land preserved from development could ever be considered surplus. So much more is being paved over so rapidly that the preserves gain in value.

Plus, there’s something in the state Constitution that limits what can be put on any “surplus” list.

‘Not in any way, shape, manner or form’

Clay Henderson has more than a passing interest in all this. A longtime environmental activist, he’s now writing a history of Florida’s land conservation programs (“Forces of Nature,” out in December).

Henderson served on the Constitutional Revision Commission in 1998. He told me he wrote the line that the group stuck in the Constitution about surplussing land: Before any conservation land is declared surplus, the land first must be declared “no longer needed for conservation purposes.”

That’s a high bar and hard to meet, he said.

Henderson told me he was well aware of the sequence of the St. Johns screw-up, but not its cause.

“What galls me is the audacity of trying to do this on the consent agenda,” Henderson said. “It’s like what Rick Scott tried to do, except they almost pulled it off.”

Henderson said the St. Johns board members began discussing the idea of selling surplus land in January. It came up again in a March workshop, for which the minutes of the meeting are surprisingly scant.

“What’s not clear,” Henderson said, “is why John Miklos was there.”

The Orlando Sentinel thought that curious too, reporting that “it doesn’t help that John Miklos spoke at an unrecorded and minimally documented session of the water district in March when surplus lands was a key topic.”

Miklos, president of an Orlando firm called Bio-Tech Consulting, served on the St. Johns water board for nearly a decade. He never saw a problem with doing that while representing development clients who needed permits from that same board.

He racked up enough ethics complaints to make Richard Nixon envious but emerged unscathed. His presence at the March meeting, though, raised suspicions that he had something to do with the surplus list winding up on the consent agenda.

I called Miklos to ask him about the March workshop. He shot back an email that said his attendance at that meeting “was not in any way, shape, manner, or form related to the district’s surplus lands.” But he didn’t say what he WAS doing there.

He also said he wasn’t giving me permission to quote from or even refer to the email he’d sent me. Y’all just pretend you didn’t read that part of this column, OK?

Trouble with transparency

On Monday morning I requested an interview with someone from the St. Johns water district who could explain how the list was put together, how it wound up on the consent agenda and how — or whether — Miklos was involved.

The water district is apparently still having some trouble with transparency.

Spokeswoman Ashley Evitt waited until Wednesday afternoon to tell me she was “unable to accommodate your interview request at this time.” She emailed me a written statement that said what I already knew: “The list created concern from stakeholders, which is understandable as some of the properties were erroneously included and would not ever [have] been considered for surplus.”

That still didn’t tell me how it happened.

When I talked to Wraithmell, she blamed years of budget cuts and employee turnover at the water agency. That left the staff unaware of the significance of the property they wanted to get rid of, she said. She contended that proper funding from Tallahassee would have avoided this near-disaster.

“They shouldn’t have to have a fire sale to accomplish their mission,” she told me.

Michael Register. Credit: SJRWMD

She and Farrell both applauded Register for pulling the plug and promising to start over. Farrell said staffers told him that now everyone could just forget it ever happened. He disagreed.

“We shouldn’t forget that this happened,” he said. “We should figure out how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I think it happened because, as with the Scott-bots, the water district folks were focused only on the money the agency could make. Those properties, according to the agenda, were the ones with “the greatest marketable value for surplus.”

Instead, government agencies thinking of selling conservation land should pay more attention to the value for Florida’s ecology. They should always include maps. And they should hesitate before ever listing any conservation land as surplus, because so much is being lost every day.

And anyone who forgets those key principles should be locked in a van with a bunch of stinky campers for a few hours — with the windows up.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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