Local News

For sale: public parks

SEBRING - Hank Kowalski would have been upset if the state had decided to sell Highlands Hammock State Park. "I would be out there with a shotgun," said the former New Yorker turned Lake Placid resident and scrub jay defender. Highlands Hammock isn't on the list of 47 state parks, forests, trails and wildlife areas that could be sold, but three in Polk County are, including Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park and Lake Kissimmee State Park. When the Acquisition and Restoration Council meets Friday at DEP in Tallahassee, it will devise scientific criteria for selling one of Florida's tiniest state parks, Florida Caverns on one-third of an acre in Jackson County, and one of the largest, Hilochee Wildlife Management Area, on 2,517 acres in Polk and Lake counties.
Ironically, Kowalski, who lobbied then-State Rep. Bert Harris to buy a portion of land for Highlands Hammock, has made his peace with selling some lands. "It seems to be the only way we can go now," said Kowalski, 90. "But down deep, I ask myself, 'Why don't we have a better governor?'" Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, supports assessing 4,235 acres for potential sale: "When the state has made acquisitions in the past, these sometimes required taking non-strategic adjacent parcels in order to reach agreements with landowners for more pristine lands. "Over time, we have accumulated some lands that aren't critical to the public interest," said Grimsley, who represents all of Okeechobee and parts of Highlands, Martin, Osceola, Polk and St. Lucie counties. "The challenge is determining which lands meet our imperatives and which do not. The vast majority of state lands do meet the public interest, so we are talking about a small percentage that might be worth divesting." Grimsley is a member of the Appropriations Committee that voted 40-0 for SB 1500, which authorized the land sale. "There is a finite amount of land that state government is likely to ever hold in public trust, and prioritizing to make room for future sensitive land acquisitions is reasonable and necessary. In those cases where a selloff is proposed, there should be clear and transparent discussion and public input, as well as oversight to ensure sweetheart deals aren't at play." However, added Grimsley, who is also on the Senate's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, "Our state parks have been recognized nationally and we ought not to rush into any decisions that roll back public enjoyment of these lands." State Rep. Cary Pigman also voted in favor of SB 1500, which passed 106-11. An omnibus budget bill, it also funded state employee compensation and benefits, state employee health insurance, the Florida Retirement System, a state match for federally declared disasters, public education capital outlay and dozens of others. Tiny parcels totaling 15.2 acres within the Florida Keys have been removed from the list, although Susan Grandin, director of the Division of State Lands, defended the overall proposal on Thursday. The 17 parcels in the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area, most abutting U.S. 1, were removed due to environmental and growth-management reasons that had been pointed out by Monroe County officials, Grandin said. In the past month, 1,000 more acres have been removed from the list, many because of title restrictions that prohibit any sale. Because of the process required to approve the list, the sale of any land isn't expected to occur until the middle of next year. All parcel sales will ultimately require the Acquisition and Restoration Council's recommendation and the Board of Trustees' determination that the land is no longer needed for conservation purposes. Assessment criteria include: Conservation valueMarketability and potential buyersCommunity concerns andTitle issues. The DEP rated one of the seven Hilochee State Park tracts at 88 percent for biological richness, but only 45 percent for functional wetlands. Florida Fish and Wildlife disagreed on its website: "Amidst rapidly developing private land in Lake and Polk counties is the ... Hilochee within the Green Swamp, a critical hydrologic resource, encompassing the headwaters of the Withlacoochee, Little Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha, Hillsborough and Peace rivers and serving as a major recharge area for the Floridan aquifer." Marian Ryan, conservation chair for Sierra Club Florida, took a dim view of the process in a letter to DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard. "There seems to be an inherent and ill-founded bias towards surplussing valuable coastal or urban-proximal properties, clearly because of market potential. Conservation lands close to urbanized areas are all the more important to retain. They may contain ... valuable wildlife habitat and species of the 'real' Florida." Up to $50 million from the sale will be combined with $20 million that lawmakers included in the budget for the purchase of land to protect springs, water quality, water quantity or to serve as buffers for military bases. Kowalski agreed with that approach. "It looks like we will gain valuable land." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828 "We are talking about a small percentage that might be worth divesting." State Sen. Denise Grimsley