TAMPA -- Stung by a slashed budget, the agency that oversees water resources in West Central Florida is taking a hard look at its vast land holdings.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District wants to determine which parcels aren't aquifer recharge areas, wetlands or needed for flood control -- and if some sort of revenue can be squeezed from those lands.
The process could end with the agency selling off, leasing or trading some prime Florida wilderness.
Some environmental groups oppose the plan, saying dumping land to save money is not in the state's best interest.
The district owns nearly a half-million acres in 16 counties, with property from Citrus County to Charlotte County along the Gulf Coast and a few inland counties. Most of the property is vital to water resources: it recharges the aquifer, is used for flood control or is suitable for storing freshwater for consumption.
Selling the parcels outright is only one of the options open to the district, which has so far evaluated 261,000 acres in 10 counties, including Hillsborough. The process has uncovered 1,276 acres in 26 parcels that have been labeled surplus lands.
Selling Florida's wilderness is a travesty, said Cathy Harrelson, conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Suncoast Group. She blames the governor and Florida Legislature, which she says is responsible for the "wholesale abuse of water protection in this state."
Slashed budgets and a lack of emphasis on protecting the ecology have forced water management districts across the state to take the drastic action, she said.
"The idea that we Floridians spent good money for decades to purchase lands that were reviewed and vetted to be important ecologically to the state of Florida and then, in the throes of a depressed real estate market, to sell them off at reduced rate -- well, I don't see that as getting a good bang for our buck," Harrelson said.
District officials say any selloff would be small.
"At this point, only 0.5 percent of our lands have been recommended for surplus," said district spokeswoman Robyn Felix. She said the project's surplus lands do not provide direct water resource benefits, which is at the core of the district's mission.
Such lands were acquired in better economic times, when the district and was able to purchase large tracts of environmentally sensitive land, some of which included uplands that had nothing to do with water resources.
Such deals mostly occurred when landowners had not been willing to divide a property offered for sale so the district bought the entire parcel. In some cases, the upland portions were leased to cattle concerns or molded into wildlife recreational areas.
The district has appointed a surplus lands subcommittee to direct the staff and to review recommendations before making its own proposals to the governing board. If approved by the subcommittee, the recommendation would be sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for approval.
If approved by the DEP, the recommendation would go to the full 13-member governing board.
Parcels in Hillsborough are scattered along the Tampa Bypass Canal, and two large tracts lie southwest of the corner of Lithia-Pinecrest Road and State Road 39 in the 5,515-acre Chito Branch Reserve in eastern Hillsborough.
Some along the canal are small, only a fraction of an acre, while others range up to 12 acres. The two tracts on the Chito Branch Reserve, the site of Tampa Bay Water's C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, are larger. One is 89 acres, the other 38 acres.
Most of those parcels currently are being reviewed by the DEP, Felix said, or being title researched.
Once all the red tape is navigated, the governing board has four options, Felix said.
The parcels can be sold or exchanged for land that "supports our core mission," she said, or can be deeded to local governments or retained as a conservation easement.
Revenue for lands sold may go to the district or to the programs under which the tracts initially were purchased, like Save Our Rivers, Preservation 2000 or Florida Forever. Some of the programs required the sale money to pay down state bonds used to make the purchases.
The district has no plans to buy additional land, Felix said.
Public hearings have been held, but the public still has an opportunity to be heard. Comments are being accepted on the district's website, www.sfwmd.gov.
Among the public's concerns was the future land use of property that ends up being sold. Some landowners purchased their property knowing they were adjacent to wildlife preserves and wanted assurances condominiums wouldn't be built or phosphate mines dug next to their homes.
The district said it can restrict, as a condition of sale, the types of uses allowed on the property by retaining a conservation easement and/or development rights. The restrictions would allow for agricultural use of the land but limit development.
Once the first round of dealing with surplus lands is over, the district will go back to take a look at properties it co-owns with other governmental agencies "to see if we can find additional management efficiencies," Felix said.
"We are trying to improve efficiencies in how we manage our lands." ___
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