Congress members question Florida Everglades buyout

WASHINGTON — Florida's congressional delegation prodded state officials Wednesday to divulge more details on the top secret negotiations to buy out U.S. Sugar, saying they were left out of the loop.

While enthusiastic about the deal, several members of Congress said they're worried about the economic effects of losing a major employer in a rural area that is already struggling.

And they said state officials have been stingy with information about the $1.75 billion deal to purchase hundreds of thousands of acres of land long coveted by environmentalists.

"If you want me in on the landing, you ought to have me in on the takeoff,'' said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat who chairs Florida's congressional delegation, along with Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.

The pair convened their peers for a two-hour grilling of state officials, who pledged full disclosure as the complex deal comes together. The South Florida Water Management District agreed on June 30 to negotiate the purchase agreement with U.S. Sugar, with a target date for closing the deal by Nov. 30.

"This will very much be done in the sunshine,'' Carol Wehle, executive director of the district, assured lawmakers. She said the deal, which involves both buying land and potentially swapping tracts with other growers, won't require any federal or state money. The water management agency is expected to pick up the tab through property taxes.

But legislators said they're worried that the loss of the sugar giant could cripple the area south of Lake Okeechobee, which has depended on the company.

"These areas have suffered [even] with a successful business,'' said Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat.

Republican Rep. Adam Putnam suggested the area already took a hit when state officials announced they wanted to buy out U.S. Sugar.

"You're already behind trying to figure out how to deal with the effect on people's lives,'' Putnam said.

Dale Brill, the director of the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, said the state is prepared to help redevelop the local economy and plans training for new jobs, along with potentially expanding nature-based tourism in the area.

Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat, said he is concerned the state is paying too much for the land, which state officials said would help resolve water storage, availability and pollution concerns that have plagued the $10.8 billion state-federal Everglades restoration effort.

Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said water management staff is now running appraisals and environmental assessements on the property.

"We're still seeking answers to those questions and we're looking forward to providing answers to the delegation,'' Sole said.

Hastings said he's afraid the scope of the project could set back federal efforts to fund Everglades restoration efforts by creating a perception that it "looks like y'all have the Everglades problem worked out.''

Wehle noted that the purchase addresses water storage problems, but that "most of the other projects remain. That does not change.''