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Florida Supreme Court upholds only part of purchase of sugar land for Eglades

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld part of the U.S. Sugar deal that allows the South Florida Water Management District to buy 73,000 acres of land from the sugar giant to improve water quality and restore the Everglades. But the court overturned a lower court ruling and prohibited the district from using the same payment method to buy an additional 107,000 acres over three years without additional review.

The most interesting read, however, is the fiesty opinion from Justice Fred Lewis who concurs with the result of the opinion but blasts his colleagues for the way they arrive at it. He accuses the court majority of perpetuating previous flawed rulings that allow local government -- and now the SFWMD -- to issue long-term debt without the constitutionally required voter approval. 

This "perpetuates and expands a distortion of our fundamental organic law, leads us beyond our prior precedent, and denies the voters of this State their constitutional right to determine whether their local governments should issue long-term debt that is ―payable from ad valorem taxation," Lewis writes.

He calls it a "local-government shell game, which is played to avoid the Florida voter" and complains that the high court has sanctioned it in the past "and do so today by improperly expanding this game."

"For these reasons, I can join in the result only, but reject the unjustifiable expansion of a fundamentally flawed principle, which operates to circumvent voter participation in a decision that requires popular vote approval under the Florida Constitution.

Some excerpts from the majority opinion:

"The trial court found that the District has not pledged its ad valorem taxing powers to pay any sum under the lease agreement or any of the leases, cannot be compelled to levy any ad valorem tax to pay the lease payments, and cannot be compelled to pay any lease payments beyond one year. We agree."

"...we agree with the trial court‘s conclusion that legislative approval is not required before the District can issue these certificates of participation."

"...The purchase agreement between U.S. Sugar and the District contains an ―Option to Purchase Real Property,‖ which gives the District an exclusive option to purchase an additional 107,000 acres for a period of three years after the closing date of the sale at a fixed price of $7400 per acre. During the following seven years, the provision gives the District a nonexclusive option to purchase the land at the appraisal value and the right of first refusal if U.S. Sugar sells the option land...

"...Because no public purpose has been proven as to the land that is the subject of the option, no public purpose has been shown for the option either. Thus, we reverse that part of the circuit court‘s order validating $50 million in COPs related to the land option.

"...With the exceptions stated above, we conclude that the District has the authority to issue the certificates of participation for the purchase of the 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar, that this obligation serves the public purpose of conserving and protecting water and water-related resources, and that the authorization of the obligation complies with the requirements of law.

"See City of Gainesville v. State, 863 So. 2d 138, 143 (Fla. 2003). However, because the purchase of the option does not serve a public purpose, COPs may not be issued to cover this expense. Further, to the extent that the substitution of other lands may implicate a pledge of the District‘s ad valorem taxing power, such lands may not be substituted."