Did two federal agencies try to find a way to use a state agency to obtain private property by eminent domain for the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP)?
An April 15, 2019 memorandum from Shannon L. Goessling, of the United States Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, to Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades National Park, with the subject line, “Authority to condemn private lands in Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY) to further U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-sponsored hydrologic restoration project,” has sparked some controversy.
In the memo, Ms. Goessling responds to three questions about the legal issues involved in obtaining privately owned land in the Big Cypress Preserve for WERP.
The memo states: “NPS (National Park Service) is familiar with WERP and knows of the corps’ interest in having its questions answered. However, NPS also believes that it is premature to explore land acquisition, especially through condemnation, too deeply, creating public concern and political complications, until modeling data indicate that acquisition of the inholding is necessary to implement WERP. In contrast, the corps believes that without knowing whether acquisition is an option, it would not be prudent to undertake modeling, which is expensive. Although NPS believes it already knows the answers to the corps’ questions, it is willing for the Solicitor’s Office to respond to the corps, but in doing so restate the need to be cautious in making the answers public.”
The questions, and responses are:
At the July 17 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in Stuart, Thomas Van Note of the South Florida Chapter Safari International stated “We are concerned of the language within this memorandum where they say they want to keep this quiet we want to be careful how we share this information.
“This is very concerning to us, not only about the privacy part but about flooding the 14 to 16 additional inches in the WERP,” he continued.
“What it will do the flora and fauna?” asked Mr. Van Note. “It will be catastrophic. To do it as a means of condemning private stakeholders property, that’s scary stuff. We fear this is something that may go forward and set a precedent for around the country.”
In a July 16 telephone interview, Steve Collins, SFWMD Real Estate Office division director, said various options for WERP are still under consideration, so the SFWMD Real Estate Office is not yet involved. He said until a plan is selected, SFWMD will not consider potential real estate acquisitions for the project.
In response to the Lake Okeechobee News’ request for information, on July 18, Jim Yocum with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District said currently, the intent is to have a draft tentatively selected plan for public comment sometime in summer of 2020.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and our partner agencies continue to explore possible options for meeting the goals and objectives of the Western Everglades Restoration Project. As such, the team is conducting research that can be used to inform a potential plan. When a potential plan is identified, we will make it available for stakeholders across the region to review and comment. At this point, it’s premature to describe what a potential plan might contain and what the water footprint might be. Those are the items the team is researching,” Mr. Yocum stated.