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A Florida agriculture land broker is 'puzzled and perplexed' at DeSantis' veto of conservation funds

Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media

Agriculture property owners in Florida lost out on millions of dollars in land conservation deals for the next fiscal year when Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vetoed funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

"I'm puzzled and perplexed,” said Dean Saunders, a former state legislator who's now in real estate, brokering deals through the land acquisition trust fund.

He said he doesn't understand why DeSantis vetoed the $100 million for agriculture conservation easements, which was a priority of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson.

Pressure to develop

"Our agricultural lands, particularly, are targets of conversion — conversions to development, i.e., houses, or solar farms,” Saunders said.

There's over 20 million acres of the state either in agriculture or timber, according to Saunders. But he said there are more than 1,100 people a day moving to Florida, putting “immense pressure” on these land owners to sell to developers.

Florida's citrus industry has less than half the acreage it had at its peak, Saunders added, meaning that less than 400,000 acres of producing citrus land is left across the state.

"Hillsborough County, Palm Beach County, Orange County … Manatee County, those are all areas where you have a lot of agricultural production, which also have tremendous growth pressure from housing developments. And it's where people want to live. They want to live in Central and South Florida … so, it is important to protect those working landscapes,” he said.

Saunders also wondered what kind of a message DeSantis is sending to the agriculture community as he runs for president in 2024.

“I'm sure there's folks in the agricultural industry that are probably like me scratching their heads wondering ‘what was he thinking?’ Because he didn't veto any of the other conservation funding,” Saunders said. “He signed that into law. So … was agriculture a target? I'm sure some people could wonder that. And if I was a farmer in Iowa, I might wonder that.”

Why the veto

Jeremy Redfern, the governor's press secretary, said in an email there's still $240 million remaining from this fiscal year available for the program moving forward.

Last year, the governor signed off on $300 million for fiscal 2022-23. It was appropriated as a fixed-capital outlay, which allows the funds to be available in the following fiscal year, according to Redfern. Once the money has been allocated, the governor and his cabinet need to approve each project over $5 million.

“Earlier this month, the governor and cabinet approved nine projects totaling $57.6 million to support the preservation of over 18,000 acres of agricultural lands. Some of the projects approved may also qualify for matching funds through the USDA, which may decrease the state share,” said Redfern.

At the June meeting, the governor and cabinet also approved the adoption of rules allowing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, or DACS, to update the program’s application process and guidelines, according to Redfern.

“This process has not been updated since 2018. Earlier this week, DACS announced their next application cycle, which will lead to the creation of a new priority list subject to the approval of the governor and cabinet. Until then, projects authorized for purchase must be included on the 2018 priority list. Given those facts, the governor made the prudent decision to continue to support the program through the remaining resources that will roll into next year’s budget,” said Redfern.

Approved conservation funds

Excluding ag lands, the budget for the next fiscal year does include more than $976 million for conservation and recreation land acquisition:

  • $100 million for the Florida Forever Program, the state’s conservation and recreation land acquisition program, for the Division of State Lands to acquire land with a focus on protecting our water resources for Floridians and visitors, including lands within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

  • $850 million for the lands within the Florida Wildlife Corridor, including the Caloosahatchee Big Cypress land acquisition project and lands within the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor.
  • $15 million for the Florida Communities Trust component of Florida Forever, which provides funding to local governments and eligible non-profit environmental organizations for the acquisition of community-based parks, open space, and greenways that further outdoor recreation and natural resource protection needs.
  • $11.2 million for the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program, which provides competitive recreational grants to local governments for the acquisition and/or development of land for public outdoor recreation.
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    Jessica Meszaros