Florida’s Shame Day: The Number 1 Con

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
October 2007

The Orlando Sentinel called it “Florida’s Shame Day 1: The big con”, when the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board voted to swap 1,266 acres of state owned conservation lands (now called Sand Lake tract) for 460 ac of private land owned by the Corrigans, plus giving them $657,300 to be held harmless in a threatened suit! 

The district used an old appraisal done in 2005 ((FL. law says 2 within 120 days of the agreement) which said the district’s 1,265 ac, composed mostly upland developable, adjacent to I95 on the east and Fellsmere on the north, was valued at only $7,000/ac, while the 460 ac of wetlands, less developable and more isolated from major roads was worth $17,000/ac- a $10,000 difference which does not make sense and is a waste of taxpayer’s dollars.

  • Despite your wonderful email letters (their Board Members said they got over 150!), 
  • Despite Charles Lee from Audubon of Florida, Frank Wegel, Buzz Herrmann, Kathy Wegel from the Friends of  St. Sebastian River (FOSSR), Jim Egan from Marine Resource Council, and David Cox and me from PIAS,  giving powerful, dynamic, and scientific presentations that should have persuaded anyone,  
  • Despite several strong editorials from the Indian River Press Journal, Palm Beach Post and the Orlando Sentinel, 
  • Despite a strong resolution by all 5 of our county commissioners to keep this land in public conservation,  the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board, 9 Board members (but none living in Indian River County, the headwaters of the St. Johns that covers 18 counties over the 300 miles of the St. Johns), 7 voted for and 2 against this shameful swap. 

In dissent, District Board Member Ann Moore said the district should consider the local interests of Indian River County, and she said” Under this proposal before us, they (County) have no opportunity to keep it under public ownership.”  Orlando Board Member Michael Ertel who represents the western part of Indian River County said the District should not set a precedent in getting rid of conservation lands.  The debate lasted over two hours. However, at the end of the debate when I thought we still had a chance to defeat this, Board Member Bill Kerr who represents the eastern part of Indian River County but does not live in our county said “it’s a bad precedent when you let local government interests override the interests of the district.” 

Florida Scrub-Jay by Bob Montanaro.

Mr. Kerr also passed around a July 10, 2007 letter from Jason Nunemaker, City Manager of Fellsmere to the District, which stated “that any annexation of the Corrigan property would require the Sand Lake property to be set aside for conservation purposes in perpetuity.”  This nonbinding statement by one official is of course less safe than having the District own it as it could be changed in a heartbeat by a future city council vote.

The board members apparently had not been given a copy of the letter before our hearing.  Strangely it seemed to influence the vote as Board Member Bill Kerr stated that “Now the Sand Lakes property is safe with Jason Nunemaker’s and Fellsmere assurances!” Charles Lee then asked that development rights be taken out of the Sand Lake deed, and it should state the land can only be used for conservation, thus codifying Nunemaker’s statement, but Kerr was not supporting that! 

Your PIAS board (along with David Cox and FoSSR) believe this is important advocacy, and we decided to file an appeal (the County is also filing a separate appeal) to the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission (the Governor and Cabinet) to overturn this deal based in part on the following which goes against Florida’s laws:

  • The need to preserve and stop the degradation of water resources, destruction of wildlife habitat, wetlands and forests resources,  land under the Florida Preservation 2000 Act
  • Need to preserve natural resources, fish and wildlife to promote recreational development and protect public lands
  • The District has not and could not make a good faith determination that the Sand Lake tract is not needed for conservations purposes.

The land is utilized by a variety of listed species, including peregrine falcons, snail kites, wood storks, scrub jays, sand hill cranes, caracara, gopher tortoises, wading birds, etc.  It was and still is valuable diverse conservation land purchased with state conservation tax payer funds.  (David Cox presented recent scientific evidence that the Sand Lakes tract was 3 times more valuable than the Corrigan parcel.)  This action heads down the slippery slope of getting rid of conservation lands for both private and public political expediency.  

Moreover this is a bad deal for the taxpayer.  Finally, this deal sets a  dangerous precedent in that landowners can threaten a law suit, and with no demonstration of merit, get public conservation lands from a water management district.  These damage claims made by the landowners should be settled in the courts to be fair for everyone.

You can help by sending a contribution to PIAS to help cover legal costs (This will cost at least $5,000) and by writing to the following who will be voting on this, asking them to rescind the September 11, 2007 Final Order of the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board approving the exchange of the Sand Lake tract:

Governor Charlie Crist:  e-mail: Charlie.crist@myflorida.com   Address: Office of Governor, PL-05 The Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0001           

Attorney General Bill McCollum:  e-mail: BillMcCollum@myfloridalegal.com Address:  Bill McCollum, PL-01, The Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1050 

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink:  e-mail: AlexSink@dfs.state.fl.us Address: Florida Dept. of Financial Service, 200 E. Gaines St., Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0300

Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson: e-mail: Charles.Bronson@myflorida.com Address:  Florida Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services, The Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0800

Thank you for your support.  

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