Tuesday, November 25, 2014

State agency delivers sugar city smackdown

A state agency released a blistering 24-page rebuke of a proposed massive city in the Everglades while environmentalists renewed calls for the state to purchase sugar land to send water south.
More than 5,000 protest dirty water, not sent south,
but to the Indian River Lagoon in the summer of 2013.


Among 34 major objections to the project, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO) report called U.S Sugar’s proposal “vague,” with “no assurances of natural resource protection,” and puts “significant urban development” in an area without flood protection.

The proposed 67-square-mile city called “Sugar Hill” includes 18,000 residential units and more than 25 million square feet of commercial development southwest of Lake Okeechobee on land vital to Everglades Restoration.

The FDEO report comes on top of two also highly-critical responses from state environmental agencies. The South Florida Water Management District recommended against the plan saying it threatened Everglades Restoration, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection wrote it “does not adequately protect against adverse impacts to important state resources, including the Florida Everglades.”

The report was surprising because the FDEO is essentially an economic development agency that Governor Scott created to replace the Department of Community Affairs, the growth management agency he dismantled. The report also comes amid news reports that U.S Sugar has been taking Florida politicians, including the Governor Scott, on hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas.

The Sugar Hill project has been widely condemned by the environmental community. Sierra Club and allies held simultaneous rallies and press conferences opposing the city and urging the state to buy sugar land instead.

Environmentalists want land bought now

The proposed city reinforces the need to buy sugar land now. The U.S Sugar land purchase of 2010 enabled 26,000 acres to be purchased with an option for the remaining 153,000 acres. The next deadline of October 2015, allows a block of 46,800 acres to be purchased at market prices. Much of the land lies within the Sugar Hill proposal. If Sugar Hill were approved, the land would be immediately more valuable as land slated for development rather than agricultural uses, making it more difficult for the public to acquire.

Governor Rick Scott has repeatedly ignored deadlines to buy sugar land. Last year he allowed the state’s exclusive rights to buy US Sugar land to expire. He opposed U.S. Sugar’s purchase as a candidate in 2010.

The enormity and grave consequences of this sprawling city cannot be overstated. It would wall off the Everglades from half of its overland water source – Lake Okeechobee. It would also end efforts to purchase the next parcel of sugar land for restoration – either for direct use or through swaps with other sugar lands farther east.

The final rejection of this city will serve as a wakeup call.  A restored Everglades and healthy estuaries require more sugar land. Governor Scott and his appointees at South Florida Water Management District should lay the groundwork for the purchase now.

U.S. Sugar has until May 1, 2015, to revise and resubmit the Sugar Hill city plan. The deadline to purchase 48,600 acres is Oct. 12, 2015.

Sierra Club Objects to Osceola County North Ranch Sector Plan

The Sierra Club Central Florida Group presented comments on the Deseret Ranches North Sector Plan.  The Sierra Club believes this monstrous plan fails to facilitate protection of regionally significant resources, including, but not limited to, regionally significant water courses and wildlife corridors, as outlined in Section 163.3245 of Florida Statutes. We requested that the Osceola County Board of County Commissioners and its Planning Commission decide not to transmit the plan to the Florida State Department of Economic Opportunity.

We question how the County and the North Ranch will sustain the viability of natural resources and wildlife corridors of the North Ranch to the planning horizon of 2060-2080, while the Ranch operates as a working ranch consisting of cattle ranching, farming, hunting, and citrus production. Our objections to the plan are as follows:

Transportation: Establishment of new transportation corridors through conservation lands and rural/agricultural lands potentially diverts state and federal transportation funding from a more integrated transportation network to serve existing/approved development areas. Additionally, proposed expressways, such as the new Pineda Causeway link crossing the St. Johns River, will fragment sensitive ecosystems and intrude into public conservation lands of Brevard County. Alternatively, the Sierra Club recommends using existing bridge alignments at SR 520 and US 192.

        Source:  North Ranch Sector Plan, page ES-7

Reservoir Resources:  The plan states - These water resources, in addition to providing valuable water supply, provide benefits to fish and wildlife resources, and add a lentic habitat type to the Environmental Plan.  ["Lentic" habitat is characterized by standing or slow moving water]

The Sierra Club objects to:
·      The proposed expansion of the Taylor Creek Reservoir (7,104 acres) and the creation of the Pennywash/Wolf Creek Reservoir. 
·      Creating the decommissioned Pennywash/Wolf Creek Reservoir (5,548 acres) that will flood and destroy thousands of acres of freshwater forested wetlands.  A similar plan proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970’s was finally rejected by the State of Florida, as noted in the Final Environmental Impact Statement of 1986. 
·      Upon receipt of authorization for construction, Pennywash/Wolf Creek acreage will be counted in the required agricultural land preservation requirement.
·      The Sierra Club objects to these long-term water reservations, as they potentially impact the already stressed St. Johns River.

        Source:  North Ranch Sector Plan, page ES-5


Proposed “sprawl-like” development, including new transportation facilities, will fragment conservation lands and wildlife habitat. For every acre of land within a CMP/DSAP [Conceptual Master Plan/Detailed Specific Area Plan], a ratio of 0.508 conservation acres for every acre of developable land area and 0.238 acres of Agricultural Lands for every acre of developable land area, as identified in Map 5 (North Ranch Planning Area Environmental Plan), must be placed into a conservation easement or agricultural covenantThe Sierra Club recommends a greater ratio of conservation lands for every acre of developable land and objects to the inclusion of the proposed Pennywash/Wolf Creek Reservoir into the agricultural land preservation requirement. 

The North Ranch includes portions of sensitive headwaters of the Upper Kissimmee River Basin, Econlockhatchee River Basin and the St. Johns River Basin.  While the plan proposes to protect the Econlockhatchee River 100-year floodplain, there are no protections for developing within the St. Johns and Upper Kissimmee River 100-year floodplains. The proposed intensity of the North Ranch Sector Plan has the potential to significantly fragment and impact these natural resources as well as the sensitive ecosystems of Orange and Brevard Counties. The proposed North Ranch Sector Plan needs more scrutiny, including stakeholder input.

The Sierra Club respectfully requests the Osceola County Planning Commission consider the Sierra Club’s recommendations not to transmit.  

--Marjorie Holt
Chair/Conservation Chair

Sierra Club Central Florida Group

Thankful for Panthers!

With the holidays approaching, Sierra Club is thankful for all the hard work so many people put toward protecting the Florida Panther.

This last year has been a turbulent one, but so many good things have come out of the hard work that numerous volunteers and organizations have dedicated to protecting Florida's wild places.

Through the combined efforts of Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Stonecrab Alliance, Preserve our Paradise, and numerous volunteers, we were able to stop an exploratory oil well in panther habitat. The Dan A Hughes Company was kicked out of Florida, and their leases to 115,00 acres were rescinded

Panther numbers are also officially up - from 160 as the maximum to 180 as the new current. Coming from an estimate of 20-30 individuals in the 1990's, this a great success toward the robustness of the panther population. 

The Sierra Club, along with other environmental groups settled a litigation case involving secondary off-road vehicle trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve. One hundred and forty-six miles of disputed secondary trails have been closed in the Preserve, bringing the ORV trail system to within the limits of the 2000 ORV-Management Plan. The trails will remain closed until environmental impacts to panther and other endangered species can be completed.

Finally, the Sierra Club would like to thank all of its dedicated volunteers, who without their tireless work, these accomplishment wouldn't be possible. To all of those who attended rallies and press conferences, testified at County Commission hearings, who wrote to their elected officials and signed our petitions, and so much more - Thank You! You are the reason why we do what we do, and give the panther a fighting chance!

Remember this holiday season, to drive safely and slow down for panthers!
Happy Holidays!

Gratitude and Solidarity Fish

If you haven’t seen any of the Solidarity Fish “swimming” around Florida in the last year you have been missing out.  What began as an artist’s (several artists actually) response to the overwhelming public outcry over the ecological collapse of the Indian River Lagoon in 2013 has become a far-reaching phenomenon. They have been from the Everglades to Washington, D.C., from the steps of the Capitol Building in Tallahassee to the cover of major Florida newspapers and in the New York Times.  But what is really spectacular about these fish is that regular folks, old and young, are the creators of these beautifully powerful images.

The recipe is simple:  a thin wooden fish is blank on one side while the other side is white skeletal remains on a black background.  Enter the volunteers who turn the blank side into a vividly painted, one of a kind masterpiece.  When they are displayed together they become a monumental public art installation that connects participants and passers-by in a most powerful way.  These two-sided “turn it around” fish display both what is lost and what can be found again if the state comes together to solve our water quality crises.

The fish have been formally mounted outside the Blake Library (Martin County), the Elliot Museum, the Stuart News building, and the Florida Oceanographic Society (to name a few), and inside Stuart City Hall.  They have been waved in parades and carried or displayed at nearly every grassroots action focused on protecting the estuaries of the Greater Everglades in the past year.  

The fish have become a single image that says it all for activists working on Everglades restoration: 
"Stop the harm
Buy the land
Send water south
Fund it now
Save the estuaries
Save the Everglades"

But they are not only a message for South Florida.
  When activists from all over the state gathered at the Floridians’ Clean Water Declaration Campaign first annual We Want Clean Water Rally last February, the fish spoke for all of Florida’s imperiled waters as they bejeweled the Historic Capitol steps under the feet of the state’s most devout clean water activists.  And when President’s Park in Washington D.C. is alight this December with Christmas trees representing every state in the nation, Florida’s tree will be covered in Solidarity Fish labeled with the names of our most iconic, but endangered, waterways.

You can find more photos, news clips and videos on the Solidarity Art Facebook page and the Solidarity Fish website

If you want to be a part of a campaign to bring Solidarity Fish Projects to other parts (your part!) of Florida please email cris.costello@sierraclub.org

Artist and illustrator Janeen Mason, the muscle behind the Solidarity Fish Project, would love to work with anyone interested in spreading the "fish"!  

You can't help but be thankful for Solidarity Fish!