In what is a surprising turn of politics, the State of Florida Board of Trustees in Tallahassee, FL approved the preservation of almost 3,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land on September 29, 2015 without Governor Rick Scott’s vote. You can read the official press release by clicking on this link.
Using the Rural and Family Lands Protection program, conservation easements encumbering the JB Ranch in Collier County (1,617 acres) and the Kilbee Ranch in Seminole County (1,286 acres) were purchased. These easements will allow the family owners to continue ranching and acting as stewards for the land while removing the pressures of development. You can read more about the program by clicking on this link.
The surprise came when Cabinet members voted against Governor Rick Scott to approve the purchase of Kilbee Ranch. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who initially joined Scott in opposing the Kilbee deal, requested and received a motion to reconsider her vote, which she changed to support the acquisition. Although Gov Scott was willing to pay up to 90% of the lowest appraised property value, Cabinet members were persuaded that the State’s appraisal process was antiquated and unfair, and that its policy is actually to pay up to 90% of the highest appraised value, not the lowest.
Gov. Scott commented that, ““I just think we have to get a better a price.” He also said, “If we don’t live up to some standard, we’re just going to keep paying more and more money. I’m okay with 90 percent of the lowest appraisal. That’s as high as I’ll go.” The family could have sold the development rights for much more money, but their desire was to continue agricultural operations without the pressures of increasing land values and development. The final negotiated price for the Kilbee Ranch was $4.095 million, and $3.75 million for the JB Ranch. (The JB Ranch purchase price was less than 90% of the lowest appraised value). The state’s costs for the two tracts will be offset partially by a pair of Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture worth a combined $2.5 million.
Adam Putnam who championed this purchase went on record to say, “Both of these represent not only the opportunities to protect large mammal populations — like bear in the case of Kilbee and panther in the case of JB Ranch — but they are a good use of conservation dollars,” He also stressed that, “These properties are invaluable pieces of Florida’s ecosystem, contributing to the protection of aquifer recharge areas and providing habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. With the approval of these two properties, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program preserves nearly 13,000 acres from future development, while allowing the land and agriculture operations to continue to contribute to Florida’s economy.”
Audubon of Florida also heralded the event with a press release. “Audubon Florida fully supports the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Rural and Family Lands Program,” said Eric Draper, Audubon Florida Executive Director.
“We think this kind of easement purchase is just what is necessary to permanently protect Florida ranchland.”
JB Ranch, located immediately north of Big Cypress National Preserve, was founded in the 1940’s and is under its third generation of family management. In addition to being within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Primary Zone for the federally endangered panther, the property is home to several listed species and their habitat, including: the Audubon crested caracara, Florida bonneted bat, Florida black bear, wood stork, sandhill crane and several others. Agricultural activities on the ranch include: cattle grazing, select timber harvesting, bee keeping and row crops.
Kilbee Ranch was acquired by the family in the 1880’s and has been a pioneering cattle ranch since the 1920’s. It once spanned over 12,000 acres. The ranch’s eastern boundary abuts the Little Big Econ State Forest and is near the St. Johns and Econolockhatchee Rivers. The property contains historic remnants of its former uses including a century-old sawmill. It is home to gopher tortoise, sandhill crane, deer, turkey, coyotes, Florida black bear and more.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program was created in 2001 and has acquired 20 perpetual easements. The easements protect working agricultural lands threatened by other uses, such as residential and commercial development.
Florida agriculture has an overall economic impact estimated at more than $123 billion annually, making it the state’s second largest industry. The agriculture industry supports more than 2 million jobs in Florida.