BRADENTON, Fla. — Two appeals now have been filed contesting a Florida judge’s decision to validate $650 million of certificates of participation sought by the South Florida Water Management District to finance the purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp.’s land for Everglades restoration.
The appeals are before the Florida Supreme Court in separate cases that are likely to be consolidated.
However, the newest appellant, New Hope Sugar Co., also has filed an emergency motion asking the high court to stay its consideration of the validation appeal because New Hope has another case pending in a lower court on issues related to the proposed purchase of the land by the water district.
In addition to being the first to file an appeal, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, also wants the Supreme Court to order all the documents relating to the lower court’s validation proceedings, which could also delay the high court’s consideration of the case. The district’s attorney objected to the motion on Tuesday.
While initial appeal briefs have not been filed, New Hope and the Miccosukee’s are likely to argue, as they did in the lower court case, that using COPs to purchase the land does not serve a valid public purpose. There also is expected to be an attempt to challenge whether COPs can be sold without first obtaining voter approval.
The water management district’s agreement with U.S. Sugar requires final validation of the COPs by March 31 in order to sell the debt shortly thereafter and close on the purchase contract by June 30.
With that deadline looming, the district’s attorney filed a motion last week seeking an expedited review of the validation by Florida’s justices.
“If there ever was a case where haste makes waste, this is it,” said a brief filed by the tribe’s attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, opposing the expedited review. “The implications of one of the largest bond validation requests in the state’s history are staggering, as are the legal questions on the legality of a water management agency validating bonds without referendum for pure land purchases.”
On Wednesday, the Florida Audubon Society Inc. and the National Audubon Society filed a brief seeking to intervene in the case and objecting to New Hope’s request for a stay of the proceedings.
Audubon’s said, in part, “This project will provide the foundation for Everglades restoration on a scale and in a location not previously thought possible.” The brief also noted that the lower court’s validation of the COPs found that the acquisition was “an important public purpose.”
Palm Beach County District Judge Donald Hafel on Aug. 26 ruled that the district had the lawful authority to sell the debt. Hafel authorized the issuance of $650 million of COPs, although the district sought validation of $2.2 billion.
The lower COP amount will enable the district to make an initial purchase of 72,500 acres for $536 million that will include an option to purchase the remaining U.S. Sugar property consisting of 107,500 acres within 10 years.
District officials have said they will determine in future years how they will fund the purchase of the remaining acreage.