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State backs conservation, shipyard deals

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet hope the U.S. Air Force will cover part of the nearly $11 million that they approved spending Wednesday to limit future development on four ranches and farms across four counties. (US NAVY per MGN)

(THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA)-Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet hope the U.S. Air Force will cover part of the nearly $11 million that they approved spending Wednesday to limit future development on four ranches and farms across four counties.

Scott and the Cabinet also approved an expanded submerged land lease for a Panama City company that is building new patrol cutters for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The four ranch deals, which involve purchasing what are known as “conservation easements,” are in Highlands, Manatee, Madison and Putnam counties.

State Forester Jim Karels said Florida anticipates getting about $4.1 million through an Air Force Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program grant to cover part of the costs associated with the 4,476-acre Goolsby Ranch in Highlands County. The ranch is along nearly five miles of Avon Park Air Force Range’s southern boundary.

“Right now, it’s in the approved stage,” Karels said of the federal money. “We always do this (fully approve with the state’s money) in case for some reason the federal government cannot abide by that $4.1 million.”

Karels estimated the state should know in about six months if the federal money is approved to help defray the $7.63 million that Scott and the Cabinet --- Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Pam Bondi --- agreed to put up for the Goolsby Ranch through Florida’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

The state program uses conservation easements, which restrict future development while allowing landowners to continue using property for such things as agriculture.

Officials have used the program 45 times, protecting 50,664 acres, since it was created in 2001.

Favored by Putnam, the program has been used 38 times since Putnam, Scott and Bondi were first elected in 2010, accounting for more than 47,000 of the acres put into conservation easements. Patronis joined the Cabinet last year.

Putnam in a prepared statement said the program establishes a partnership with farmers and ranchers to “preserve the invaluable pieces of our rural economy and environment.” The Goolsby Ranch is used as a commercial dairy farm.

Scott and the Cabinet also agreed Wednesday to spend money on the following conservation easements:

--- $1.5 million on 929 acres in Manatee County that have been used since the mid-1800s for cow-calf and timber operations. Now known as Howze Ranch, the land sits within the Upper Myakka River watershed.

--- $1.26 million on 1,400 acres in Madison County known as Sampala Lake Ranch. The cow-calf operation is on the north side of Sampala Lake, a 115-acre spring fed lake. It also is adjacent to 772 acres that the state paid $660,060 to conserve in March. The 772-acre site included San Pedro y San Pablo de Protohiriba, one of five missions established by Spanish explorers.

--- $540,000 for 1,583 acres in Putnam County known as Rodman Plantation. The land, also known as Cow Heaven Swamp, is a cow-calf ranch with timber and hay operations and hunting. The land drains into the Ocklawaha River and Rice Creek systems.

As for the new five-year lease in Panama City for the Coast Guard work, the deal combines two existing leases involving 86,458 square feet of state-owned submerged land into a new lease covering 337,536 square feet.

The new lease will allow Eastern Shipbuilding to expand its facility and create a turning basin. The expansion is tied to the company’s contract with the Coast Guard to build nine offshore patrol cutters, with the option to build two additional vessels, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The project could eventually involve a total of 25 new cutters, with a value of more than $10 billion, and could bring 4,500 to 5,000 jobs to the community over the next 20 years, state officials said.

The ship-building company will pay the state $70,755, which includes $59,661 as the initial annual lease fee and $11,095 as a one-time charge for expanding the lease.

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