Mucked up

The state and apopka armers' algae-fueled talks are bogged down and mucked up. Last year Florida swallowed hard and found $91 million to buy the muck farms on the northern end of Lake Apopka. The idea: buy out the farmers and finally stop the pollution that has helped turn the lake into the state's greenest. But now it looks as if the buyout will not happen. At least not as most people envisioned it. Last week the St. Johns River Water Management District gave itself an extra six weeks to devise a maximum limit on the amount of phosphorus farmers will be allowed to dump in the lake. In the event of a full buyout the regulation, called a phosphorus load limit, will be moot: there will be no farmers to regulate. But from the beginning of negotiations, the possibility has loomed that the state would buy only some of the farms. St. Johns had promised to set the maximum pollution limit before the Sept. 30 buyout deadline, allowing the farmers to judge their willingness to live with the new regulations. So the district's new date for setting the pollution limit, Nov. 13, is significant because it falls long after the closing date for the buyout. In effect, the district is asking the farmers to sign a buyout or face an unknown pollution control limit--sort of a Monte Hall negotiating tactic. The farmers are pretty sure they aren't going to like what's behind that door. Yet some say the "Let's Make a Deal" pitch leaves them in the dark. "In truth we don't know what's behind any of the doors," says Dell Potter, a part owner of Robert Potter & Sons Farm and a lawyer negotiating on behalf of Potter and three other small farmers in the Zellwood Drain- age District. "We have looked at the offers and at the current time we're not satisfied with where they are." The base of the negotiating impasse seems to be the dwindling supply of cash. Duda farms sold last year for $19.8 million, and Zellwin--the area's largest at 5,254 acres--has a pending agreement to sell for $33.5 million. The two farms together total 9,000 acres of the 14,000 acre muck lands, and their prices leave $37.7 million for the remaining 5,000 or so acres of muck land. Robert Christianson, the St. Johns District's director of planning and acquisition, and the chief negotiator in the buyout, says serious offers are on the table for every property--and the remaining money would yield about $7,000 per acre. "Our goal continues to be a full buyout," he says. "I'm not going to speculate on the odds." The 17 smaller owners want more money, and they realize that if St. Johns doesn't buy them, their patchwork of fields could present an engineering nightmare for the state agency. That's because rules governing the federal portion of the buyout money, $26 million from the Department of Agriculture, requires the lands purchased to be flooded. It would be easy to flood the entire drainage district. But if some small farmers remain, St. Johns might have to build dikes and culverts and pumping stations to keep their neighbors dry. The costs of this could surpass the savings of not doing a full buyout. Hence, the remaining farmers seek another $11 million or so -- a big premium on the remaining properties but, as Dell Potter points out, "from my perspective, if we're really just 10 percent `from a deal`, surely there are enough funds out there to do an entire buyout at $102 million." The farmers can't count on new money though, and if they miss the buyout, they may go out of business. New environmental regulations aside, many doubt they could survive once the economies of scale provided by their larger neighbors are removed. "The processing facilities are set up for tens of thousands of crates per day," says Giles Van Duyne, executive director of the Zellwood Drainage and Water District and Christianson's opposite in the buyout negotiations. Van Duyne sees a full buy-out as the only clean solution. "The legislature says it's in the public interest to buy all of the land," he notes. "That's marching orders, seems to me." Much can still change before the buyout deadline, and some who are familiar with the talks note that the September dead- line -- after which some $71 million federal and state dollars are scheduled to return to their respective treasuries -- may be pushed back. The deal before the farmers now is a draft outline, dated June 20, with Xs standing in for phosphorus load limits, the number of acres of land St. Johns will lease to Zellwood for a potential storm water management system, and the dollar amount for the lease. One issue is how St. Johns and any potential remaining farmers will share the cost of lake restoration. The Zellwood Drainage District, a quasi-governmental agency, has the power to tax all its members for district infrastructure. By buying the farmland, St. Johns becomes a member of the district. But the government agency doesn't want to pay Zellwood fees -- at least not like a farmer would. But the more significant Xs, to the farmers' minds, are the ones designating phosphorus loading limits. St. Johns has long held that the farmers should not be allowed to dump any nutrient-rich water into the lake, and even went to court in the late 1980s to stop them. When a judge settled the matter in favor of the farmers, St. Johns and environmental activists went to the legislature. St. Johns last proposed a phosphorus discharge limit of .79 pounds per acre per year. It was that number, made part of a bill by Bill Sublette in the 1996 legislative session, that spurred the farmers to ask for a buyout. The buyout bill replaced Sublette's, and the load limits never passed. Van Duyne says the farms simply can't meet the limit. "And you can't legally challenge it," notes Van Duyne. "Why put that into this negotiation?" He chops one hand with the other. It was designed to kill negotiations, he suggests--a squeeze play on the farmers to either force them all to sell cheap, or buy just a few and regulate the others out of business. "Who's to say that number there won't be zero?" If no deal emerges, "then we start paying lawyers." Christianson says he put the phosphorus issue on the table first, and the farmers refused to negotiate. The negotiation's current shape was thus inevitable. "If the full buyout does not proceed, then we try to define as much as we can the responsibilities and duties of the respective parties," he says. The Xs in the contract were meant as negotiating points to be settled before anyone signs the contract, to determine the "extent to allow the farmers there to farm, a way to keep us out of court. That's our goal. Can we get there? I don't know." But what about the notion that a partial buy-out could actually save, say, $20 million of the $91 million in taxpayer funds, and still clean the lake by hamstringing the former polluters? Christianson will not endorse such a theory. "That would be a conspiracy," he says, "That's not at all what we're doing. We're certainly not strategizing to put anybody out of business."
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