The Glades Trade

The state has a big job in trying to save the Everglades. Question is, Does it know what it's doing?

Yet the district doesn't even have a solid idea of what buying the rest of the land will cost -- development or no development. The land has never been accurately appraised, says Hansler Bealyer, a realty specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Until now the district has relied on a preliminary (and not very detailed) study the corps did in 1998. John Fumbero, general counsel for the district, admits the numbers are imperfect. "There were a great deal of assumptions that were made when those numbers came out. There're so many variables. It's just a project manager's rough guesstimate."

That "guesstimate" predicted an average per-acre price of $24,000, far below the cost of recent purchases. The district was supposed to issue its own, more detailed study this year, but it's already several months overdue, Bealyer says.

In the last six years, the district has spent $130 million buying land for the project. Starting this year the available money was supposed to jump to $200 million annually through 2006, courtesy of the Florida Forever Act, approved by the state legislature in 2000. But the district wound up with only $68 million for 2001, because state authorities didn't live up to their commitment. "This is a shell game, and we can't afford to lose, because if we keep hiding the ball, we're not going to get this project implemented," Deady fumes.

And only buying part of the land won't do much good. The preserve won't work unless it's a continuous line of water, not a patch here and there, Deady says. "This is where the rubber really meets the road. If they don't get the land, then Everglades restoration is not going to be successful."

Not a problem, Fumbero says: "I think Florida -- and the governor and the governing board of this agency -- has made its commitment pretty clear. We are going to carry out our end of the bargain on Everglades restoration. So I am confident the funds will be there."

But will there be enough money to buy the land before it's developed? Following a long silence on the phone line, Fumbero answers, "I don't think the issue is whether there will be enough money. All I can tell you is we've got a full plate, and we're going both barrels blasting with land acquisition."

The buffer-zone area in Broward County is at the top of the water district's list, Fumbero says. But he backs off when asked just when, if ever, the district will get around to making offers on the land. "To do all of the land acquisition within the next two or three years, we would have to hire an army of real-estate appraisers and negotiators."

The district must come to grips with that issue when its governing board meets September 12 and 13. And there is still a long way to go toward building the water preserve areas. The district has purchased only 50 percent of the needed land in Palm Beach County, 62 percent in Broward, and 26 percent in Dade, or about 41 percent overall.

Rusty Hayes, owner of Runway Growers and another plaintiff in the Broward landowners' suit, typifies the people the district will face in trying to buy land from here on out. The best and most valuable of his four tree nurseries is down the road from Daher's trailer on 202nd Avenue. There 8000 native trees stand in neat rows on ten acres. "My problem is, I can't replace this land. I mean, look at that," the silver-haired Hayes says, waving a beefy arm past the white cowboy hat on the dashboard of his pickup. He points at a patch of deep black soil, the legacy of thousands of years of plant decay in the Everglades. "I'll tell you, man, that stuff will grow hair on a rock." Even with comparable soil (not to be found elsewhere in Broward County), it would take him and other growers at least four years to grow new trees from saplings to salable size.

When it comes to estimating fair cost, Hayes is momentarily at a loss. There's so much to consider: the irreplaceably rich land; grading, watering, and preparing a new site; and the cost of moving 8000 trees or waiting for new ones to grow. Maybe $3 million for his ten acres alone, he says. "This is a family farm. I'd like to tell you this is some big, high-powered operation, but it's not. Losing this will really put a hurting on us."

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