Tea Party Hires Actors to Protest Everglades Land Buy

Tea Party activists are encouraging people to "stop the land grab" — meaning stop the state from buying 46,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee that environmentalists say would be critical to cleaning up the Everglades. Tea partiers held a protest yesterday at the South Florida Water Management District's West Palm Beach office — but now screen grabs seem to reveal that the group hired actors to pose as protesters. 

A screen grab provided by Progress Florida seems to suggest that a Fort Lauderdale realtor named Karen Donohue posted an ad to the Broward Acting Group, offering $75 for people who would hold signs and pose as protesters. 

Donohue did not return a call yesterday afternoon. 

Sugar companies that operate on the north side of Lake Okeechobee discharge massive amounts of phosphorous from fertilizer into the lake, which has thus become horribly polluted. During the rainy season, the water gets high and threatens to break the dam and flood the surrounding area, so water managers must divert that dirty water east through the St. Lucie River and west through the Caloosahatachee. Last year, horribly polluted water killed dolphins and fish all along the rivers to both coasts, destroying local fishing and tourism economies and lowering property values. 

If the state were to buy the land south of the lake, scientists say, water could go south and the plants there would naturally filter out pollution. Environmentalists have eyed this land for decades. The state now has until October to purchase the land or the deal expires. This year, conservationists were especially optimistic that a deal would go through because last November, voters passed Amendment 1, which specifies that money from the documentary stamp tax — a few dollars charged when courts process paperwork lie deeds and mortgage documents — would be used for conservation. 

But now, those monies are being hijacked, say the people who campaigned for Amendment One.

In the summer of 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced a deal with U.S. Sugar to buy its land for $1.75 billion — a deal Crist likened to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. That fall, the recession hit, and the deal was watered down. Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida explains that in 2010, the state signed a deal to buy. "Back then, Big Sugar even touted it — like they were stepping up and doing their part by turning this land into a reservoir." Money, however, wasn't available for the state to make the purchase. Now, with Amendment 1 funds, it should be.  

"They're pulling a move like they did with the lottery money," says Ferrulo. In the late 1980s and 1990s, money from the Florida lottery was supposed to be earmarked for education. But instead of using the money to supplement existing school funding, "they took lottery money and used it for existing costs," Ferrulo says, "and to give tax breaks to corporations and other special interests. We're seeing the same thing play out with Amendment 1 — they're taking the bulk of Amendment 1 money and using it for pet projects pushed by powerful developers and other special interests for things that are not land and water conservation."   

A program called Florida Forever used to be funded at $300 million a year for conservation, but it has been gutted over the years. Amendment 1 is expected to reap $757 million. 

As the Sun Sentinel explained: 
The chance to buy the 46,800 acres stems from a 2010 land deal between U.S. Sugar and the water management district. That deal cost the district $197 million to acquire 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for Everglades restoration. It also gave the district a 10-year option to buy the sugar giant's remaining 153,200 acres.

Instead of buying all of that remaining land, the deal gives the district until October 2015 to buy just the 46,800 acres.

It would cost $350 million if bought at the same per-acre price as the 2010 deal, but that could increase depending on what appraisals show.

The language of Amendment 1 is very specific in mentioning that it be used for conservation and recreational waterways, but legislators are proposing it be used to  "build more pipelines — more water, so homebuilders can build more homes," Ferrulo says. "They are completely warping the will of the voters by diverting this money to fill existing budget gaps."  

Whether the land gets bought will be a matter of whether it gets funded in the budget. The legislative session ends May 1. 

Ferrullo expressed confusion that the tea party — which promotes fiscal responsibility in government spending — was "backing big multinational corporations like the sugar industry — that gets huge government support . The tea party's going to carry water for these guys? It makes no sense!" Ferrullo said voters should urge their legislators to "buy the land, save our Everglades, and protect our drinking water." His group has set up a petition. 

But Everett Wilkson, a tea party activist, says he opposes the deal. "Why? First off, the federal government already has 25 percent of the land in Florida. It's a boondoggle — it won't help the environment. It could cost up to $2 billion. It's in the wrong location, and there's programs already working for the environment that they need to fund."  

Asked what such programs he was speaking of, Wilkinson said, "Kids without shoes and veterans dying in the street" are more deserving of public monies. "I'm against wasteful government spending." Buying the land would be "a major waste of taxpayer money," he said. Of the alternate programs, he said, "I don't want to go into the specific programs because I don't know the names of them," he said. 

He said that someone —  "sound environmentalists — I can't remember the guy's name — but these people are 100 percent committed to the fight to clean up the river and the inlet, and every one of them have told me [that buying the land] isn't going to help the environment."  

He said he attended yesterday's rally and there were about 50 people there.  

The acting ad had called for 40. 

Afterward, Donohue posted: "easiest $$ ever": 

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Deirdra Funcheon