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Crist Defends Everglades Plan

Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday defended a $536 million plan with U.S. Sugar Corp. to purchase 73,000 acres in the Everglades as critics wrapped up arguments in their effort to overturn the deal.

As the governor touted the program, competitor Florida Crystals and the Miccosukee Indian Tribe were scheduled to offer closing statements in a West Palm Beach court room in their attempt to scuttle the plan that calls for the South Florida Water Management District to purchase the land with an option for an additional 107,000 acres.

Florida Crystals says the proposal, reduced in scope from its original footprint in response to a tightened state budget, is still too expensive and will not have the intended effect. The case is being heard in circuit court.

Speaking to reporters in Tallahassee, Crist said he hoped the court would uphold the proposed purchase, a much smaller endeavor than the $1.3 billion proposal first aired more than a year ago.

“It’s important that we do whatever we can to preserve the Everglades, that’s why we pushed so hard in this administration to do so,” Crist said. “I’m very grateful for the progress that has been made… and I’m optimistic about the court case.”

The plan calls for using the U.S. Sugar purchase to help connect Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. The tract is part of a multi-billion project to build reservoirs and treatment areas to restore water flow to the River of Grass.

To pay for it, the water management district agreed to sell bonds and repay the debt through taxes levied on property owners in the 16-county district.

The original plan called for spending $1.34 billion to purchase 180,000 acres. In December, the water management board on a 4-3 vote approved the purchase of the parcel, a 300-square mile region.

The original plan drew criticism from a number of fronts, including local officials in Clewiston and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who tried unsuccessfully to block the water management board’s ability to purchase land without local voter approval.

In response to such criticism and the state's tight budget, the project was retooled and reduced to include what state environmental officials said were the most critical acres needed to connect water sources with lands farther south.

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