County land buy may be in peril


Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

Alachua County stands to lose $3 million in state money to help with the purchase of 3,000 acres of conservation land now that the Florida Legislature has frozen Florida Forever money to cope with a worsening state budget.

County commissioners on Tuesday took an emergency step to allocate the county's $1.1 million share for the purchase of the Whitehurst tract north of Micanopy.

The county hopes the money will allow it to get the state allocation, which was earlier pledged to the project, even though the Legislature froze the $300 million Florida Forever program as planned on Wednesday.

"In 2008 we were awarded a $3 million state grant and in the past year we have been working on the due diligence to bring it to closing. We are planning on closing in February and all of a sudden on Friday we got word that (the Legislature) is raiding the Florida Forever fund," said Ramesh Buch, Alachua County Forever program manager. "We need $1.1 million of our money available to put in place so that if the state says they are closing down these funds and wants to know who is closing on property, we can be ready to go."

Florida Forever annually spends about $300 million on land conservation statewide. About $50 million in bonds have already been pledged this fiscal year. The state plans to freeze Florida Forever spending for a year.

Alachua County Forever is a local land-conservation program funded by a property tax. Money from the recently approved sales tax increase will allow continuation of the program.

Commissioners on Tuesday in effect made an emergency loan to Alachua County Forever to create the $1.1 million in hopes of saving the $3 million in state funds. The $1.1 million will be paid back as more Alachua County Forever revenue comes in.

"Even with this, we still don't know if we will get the money," said Chris Bird, Alachua County environmental protection director. "Ramesh has an agreement with the state. What's not clear is whether the state is going to honor the existing agreements or whether they are going to freeze those out as well."

If the state does not give the money, Buch said he will have to ask the commission if it wants to continue with the purchase with Alachua County Forever paying the full amount with later reimbursement or cancel the deal, leaving the seller in the lurch.

The Whitehurst tract is north of Micanopy and west of Interstate 75. It is adjacent to the Barr Hammock tract purchased through Alachua County Forever.

Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or at swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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