TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Wednesday to use $15 million from the Florida Forever program to buy 407 acres in Gilchrist County — preserving a cluster of natural springs — and to protect 6,071 acres of agricultural land in Polk and Hardee counties.
Scott and Cabinet approved dipping into $75 million that remained in the Florida Forever fund, which isn’t budgeted to receive additional money in the upcoming fiscal year.
The state also used Florida Forever for a $4.5 million purchase in March of more 465 acres to protect Silver Springs in Marion County and a $16.1 million deal in October to acquire 11,027 acres of land known as Horn Springs Wood southeast of Tallahassee.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, appointed to the position May 23, said Wednesday he intends to continue using the money in the Florida Forever account.
“We want to bring in more great acquisitions like the two today, ones that really resonate with the local community as jewels for Florida,” Valenstein said.
The Gilchrist County property, located near the Santa Fe River, includes six springs and Blue Springs Park, which will continue to be operated as part of the state’s trail system. The purchase totaled $5.255 million.
A $9.79 million deal to protect land in the northeast corner of Hardee County and south-central Polk County, owned by Crews Groves, Inc., involves purchasing what is known as a conservation easement.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist, said while the use of Florida Forever money is picking up from prior years, Scott and the Cabinet — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and outgoing Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — could do more.
“It used to be, years ago, in the (former Gov. Jeb) Bush days, there would be a few projects before every Cabinet meeting,” Draper said. “The path forward is to get more money in the budget.”
Florida Forever was once a $300-million-a-year fund. But the program lost favor as lawmakers reduced funding during the recession, with some arguing the state had to prioritize money to manage land already in state hands.
Meanwhile, Scott and the Cabinet, particularly Putnam, have favored the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which focuses on buying conservation easements. Such easements typically restrict future development while allowing existing landowners to continue using the property for such things as agriculture.
Draper said the retention of the Florida Forever pool of money has been used as a “negative argument” that has kept the program from getting additional cash.
The 2017-2018 budget that Scott signed on June 2 includes $10 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and nothing for Florida Forever.
The lack of use of Florida Forever was among the impetuses for a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that was designed to set aside money for land and water conservation.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet on Wednesday also signed off — over Scott’s objection — on a request by the University of Central Florida to spend $19.1 million to purchase 10.31 acres in the Central Florida Research Park, south of the main campus.
The acquisition is part of past legislative funding directed at helping move U.S. military personnel from commercially leased space into a facility linking academia and the military for cyber-defense initiatives.
The move is expected to save the U.S. military about $4 million a year and could reduce the chances of bases around Central Florida being put on future base realignment and closure, or BRAC, lists.
The sales price is 94 percent of the appraised value of the property, according to Cabinet records.
Scott has previously opposed land buys when sales prices weren’t at or below 90 percent of the lowest appraised values.