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Florida's Biggest Private Landowners

Plum Creek Timber
1. Plum Creek Timber
Plum Creek's Jon Rashleigh (left), head of Florida forestry, and Todd Powell, head of Florida real estate, say the state's largest landowner will continue to see its primary business as timber but has some significant development plans as well. [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]

Arrayed in row after row of tall, skinny slash pines, vast tracts of timberland have dominated the triangle between Jacksonville, Lake City and Gainesville for more than a hundred years. The landowners, dating back to the Owens-Illinois and Georgia Pacific forest-product companies, kept the area rural by keeping it in trees.

Today, these tracts are owned by Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber. The publicly held real estate investment trust entered Florida in 2001, when it merged with Georgia-Pacific's Timber Co. Plum Creek — with 590,000 acres stretching into 22 of the state's 67 counties — crowns Florida Trend's list of the top 10 private landowners in Florida.

Combined, the 10 companies own more than 5,000 square miles of Florida — roughly a tenth of the state's total land area. The large privately owned swaths are vital to Florida's future — from their environmental importance for protecting the state's freshwater resources and wildlife habitats to their economic significance for preserving agriculture and developing new business sectors.

St. Joe Co.
2. St. Joe Co. [Photo: St. Joe Co.]

"Florida's got a very unique asset in these large tracts because almost every single subject of interest to the state right now is crucial on these lands," says Alan Reynolds, CEO and chairman of southwest Florida engineering firm WilsonMiller.

Like Plum Creek, most of the companies on the top 10 list plan to remain primarily agricultural businesses — whether raising cattle in central Florida, growing sugar cane and citrus in the southern part of the state or planting trees in the north. In addition to use for lumber and pulp, pines grown by Plum Creek, St. Joe Co., Foley Timber, Rayonier Timber and others soon will become part of the biofuels boom, feeding biomass-burning plants slated for southern Georgia, Gainesville and elsewhere.

But Plum Creek and most of the others also are moving to develop strategic pieces of their Florida holdings. Plum Creek's plans, for example, include an inland port in Lake City, a community development north of Gainesville and a master plan for 70,000 acres in Alachua County east of Gainesville, where the company wants to engage citizens to develop an economic and conservation plan unique in Florida's development history. Other big landowners' plans range from mixed-use developments to logistics centers and sites for alternative-energy crops and firms.

Foley Timber Co.
3. Foley Timber Co. [Photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]

The projects coincide with what may be the biggest rewrite of Florida's growth-management law in its 25 years on the books. "The question," Reynolds says, "is whether the state is going to be able and willing to accommodate the big ideas."

One concern shared by all the landowners is the issue of "predictability" — beginning with confidence that they will be able to continue large-scale agricultural operations in an increasingly urban state. Erik Jacobsen, manager at the Mormon Church's Deseret Ranch, which stretches from eastern Orange County 50 miles south to Brevard County, says the church is committed to continue cattle ranching and farming on most of its land. But development in the surrounding central Florida region creates constant pressure. Most threatening at the moment are bids by various cities and counties and the St. Johns River Water Management District to move water off the ranch for use in urban areas. "We're committed to preserving all the things we love about central Florida and to preserving the agricultural heritage of the land, but in return we need some certainty," says Jacobsen. "Including the certainty that we'll have the water we need to irrigate."

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Profiles of Florida's Top 10 Private Landowners
1. Plum Creek Timber 6. Deseret Ranches of Florida
2. St. Joe Co. 7. Mosaic
3. Foley Timber 8. Bascom Southern
4. Rayonier 9. Florida Crystals
5. Lykes Bros. 10. U.S. Sugar

Rayonier Timber
4. Rayonier Timber [Photo: Will Dickey]

The landholders want a different kind of predictability for the slices of their lands they intend to develop: They want to be able to do long-term planning now, with certainty that the rules won't change in the future as they move to carry out projects when economic conditions are right. "Florida's growth-management laws were not written with major landowners in mind," says Bo Taff, vice president for planning at Perry-based Foley Timber. The company owns 562,000 acres of timberland in five counties, including the vast majority of Taylor, where the firm has helped lead a community visioning and master-planning process.

Another issue for the big landowners as they plot the future involves compensation for the environmental values of their land — particularly given the recent lack of funding for Florida Forever, a land-buy program that has protected more than 2 million acres of key habitat, water and other resources. At The Nature Conservancy, director of protection Keith Fountain says large landowners, governments and NGOs are increasingly turning to conservation easements, which can achieve the same objectives for less tax money. But even the easements are under fire in the current political climate, as evidenced by protests of the federal government's work to establish, through a series of easements, the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge south of Orlando.

Lee Thomas
"We tend to get excited about the new economy, and it's important, but so is the old economy. The fact that Florida has this much forest is very, very good for Florida."

— Lee Thomas, chairman/president/CEO, Rayonier Timber

Lykes Bros. CEO Howell Ferguson says Florida must find new models that compensate private companies for the environmental benefits they create, from capturing carbon to storing water or keeping it clean. As a model he offers the Lykes West Waterhole project, which stores water on behalf of the South Florida Water Management District and removes phosphorous to keep pollution from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. An Audubon analysis found it cost taxpayers some $3 million, compared with an estimated $76 million for a traditional stormwater treatment area of similar size.

Many see promise in Florida's languishing Rural Lands Stewardship Program, in which development credits are swapped for preserving conservation and agricultural lands. In 2002, a group of southwest Florida's largest landowners, environmentalists and other stakeholders helped create the Collier County Rural Lands Stewardship Program, establishing credits to preserve conservation and agricultural lands. In the years since, the program has preserved about 55,000 acres in the region. About 17,000 of those acres were preserved in exchange for granting 5,000 acres of development rights — for the new town of Ave Maria — to a joint venture of Barron Collier Cos. and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.

Foley Timber
Foley Timber owns more than 500,000 acres of Florida, with the vast majority in Taylor County. The company's Florida vice presidents, Bo Taff (left) and Travis McCoy helped develop a 128,000-acre master land-use plan for the county. "We're content being a timber company," says Taff, "But when people begin to knock on Taylor County's door, we want to be able to open it. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]

But the Rural Lands Stewardship program hasn't been used since, as the state Department of Community Affairs and stakeholders spent years debating new rules, which put projects on hold. That type of delay is one reason that Gov. Rick Scott has drawn a bull's-eye on the DCA. Scott wants to reorganize the department and move all but 40 of its 358 jobs to other agencies.

Scott's DCA secretary, Billy Buzzett, was vice president for strategic planning at St. Joe Co., which used another large-scale planning approach, "sector planning," to develop the company's 78,000-acre West Bay project.

Buzzett has recommended the Legislature expand sector planning, increase the minimum acreage allowed for such plans and remove a requirement to demonstrate "need" for the development — a requirement that's held back projects such as Highlands County's Blue Head Ranch [ See "Florida's Biggest Private Land Owners: Beyond the Top Ten"].

All stakeholders including the big landowners agree Florida needs better long-term planning tools. One flaw in the West Bay project, for example, was that it relied on Florida Forever to purchase the 41,000 acres the project earmarked for conservation. But the Legislature hasn't funded Florida Forever for two years, and with future funding uncertain, the protection of those acres is in question, says Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. "We've learned that the conservation process needs to be in place upfront," Pattison says.

Back in the pine woods of north Florida, Todd Powell, director of real estate at Plum Creek Timber, suggests that the days of conservation deals as big as Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida — which preserved 73,000 acres in a 92,000-acre project — are not over. That conservation buy cost taxpayers $350 million. Powell and others say such deals are possible at far lower cost to taxpayers.

"These are not properties acquired at modern real estate values that need to make money tomorrow," Powell says. "Our business model allows us to be very patient. Working with large landowners, there are some really creative ways to solve Florida's conservation and economic development needs concurrently."

Profiles of Florida's Top 10 Private Landowners
1. Plum Creek Timber 6. Deseret Ranches of Florida
2. St. Joe Co. 7. Mosaic
3. Foley Timber 8. Bascom Southern
4. Rayonier 9. Florida Crystals
5. Lykes Bros. 10. U.S. Sugar

1 Plum Creek Timber

Plum Creek Timber
[Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]

Publicly held timber real estate investment trust (NYSE-PCL)
Florida acres: 590,000
Headquarters: Seattle

In addition to being the largest private landowner in Gainesville, in Alachua, Baker, Flagler, Levy and Union counties and in Florida, Plum Creek is the largest non-government landowner in the United States, with 6.8 million acres in 19 states. The company earned $1.2 billion in revenue last year, with $569 million from timber, $336 million from real estate sales and the remainder from manufacturing wood products and other activities.

Plum Creek manages about 90% of its Florida holdings for timber production, primarily slash and loblolly pine. "We view this region as a very productive part of the country to do business," says Jon Rashleigh, Plum Creek's head of forestry for the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina operations.

Plum Creek accounts for most of the conservation easements in Florida, with more than 90,000 acres in easements statewide. Its land-development plans include an inland port in Lake City, a community development north of Gainesville and a master planning process for 70,000 acres in eastern Alachua County.

2 St. Joe Co.

St. Joe Co.
[Photo: St. Joe Co.]

Publicly held real estate company (NYSE-JOE)
Florida acres: 576,000
Headquarters: WaterSound, outside Panama City

St. Joe Co., the former paper-and-timber company that once owned a million acres in northwest Florida, was the state's No. 1 landowner until 2009. It dropped to No. 2 as it shed timberland to focus on its community and commercial developments. The most aggressive of Florida's top 10 landowners in developing its holdings, St. Joe saw its residential real estate push, planned for a decade, founder with the economy. The company lost $130 million on revenue of $138.3 million in 2009.

Major shareholder Miami-based Fairholme Fund recently forced President and CEO Britt Greene and three other board members out and is expected to spur changes to St. Joe's real estate strategy. Its 71,000-acre West Bay project is the state's largest master-planned mixed-use development, with a 50-year growth plan. St. Joe has focused on enticing aerospace and alternative energy companies to the VentureCrossings commercial project at West Bay, adjacent to the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, for which St. Joe donated the land.

In September, the company hired Neal Wade, former head of the Florida's Great Northwest economic-development effort and most recently the Alabama Development Office. With 1,000 acres entitled around the airport, St. Joe has "positioned this region for the aggressive new marketing effort the new governor and the state are going to do for the next few years," Wade says.

3 Foley Timber Co.

Foley Timber Co.
[Photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]

Privately owned by California businessmen Howard Leach and Robert Day
Florida acres: 562,000
Headquarters: Perry

Spreading out from Perry in Taylor County, Foley Timber's 562,000 acres make up the largest contiguous privately owned tract in Florida, and one of the largest east of the Mississippi River. Consumer-product giant Procter & Gamble owned the land through the 1980s before selling its Perry pulp mill to Memphis-based Buckeye Technologies and forest lands to Howard Leach, U.S. ambassador to France from 2001-05, and Robert Day, chairman of the Trust Company of the West.

Foley's local leaders are Travis McCoy, senior vice president for woodlands, and Bo Taff, senior vice president for planning, a former economic developer in the governor's office under Jeb Bush.

The company recently completed a 128,000-acre master land-use plan for mixed-use development and agricultural-preservation lands in Taylor County. The vast majority of its lands will remain in trees. But the plan calls for a series of villages along the coast and four regional employment centers around Perry, where locals hope to land new-economy industries such as alternative-energy firms. Foley recently sold a tract in one of the newly designated commercial areas to Nautilus Solar. A solar-panel farm will soon replace a pine tree farm.

4 Rayonier Timber

Rayonier Timber
[Photo: Will Dickey]

Publicly held diversified real estate investment trust (NYSE-RYN)
Florida acres: 401,000
Headquarters: Jacksonville

In addition to growing trees for pulp and lumber, Rayonier manufactures "performance fibers" from cellulose that are used around the world in products from LCD screens and pharmaceuticals to disposable diapers. In 2010, the company earned $214 million on performance fibers, $53 million on real estate and $33 million on timber.

President and CEO Lee Thomas says the company's long-term plans in Florida are to focus on growing trees and manufacturing performance fibers. But Rayonier will sell land through real estate subsidiary TerraPointe when values for residential and commercial development outweigh those for timber. Its holdings include 200,000 acres with high-value potential along the coastal Interstate 95 corridor between Savannah, Ga., and Daytona Beach.

5 Lykes Bros.

Lykes Bros.
[Photo: Lykes Bros.]

Privately owned by the descendants of Howell Tyson Lykes
Florida acres: 337,000
Headquarters: Tampa

For most of the 20th century, Lykes Bros. was one of the leading business players in Florida, with banks, utilities, a steel company, an orange juice factory and the world's largest steamship line. Today, Lykes is primarily an agricultural firm, with a ranch spanning Glades and Highlands counties and operations in cattle, citrus, sugarcane and pine, as well as insurance.

Under CEO Howell Ferguson, great-grandson of company founder Howell Tyson Lykes, the company has embraced sustainable agriculture and environmental-services initiatives, such as the carbon-consulting spinoff Eco2Assets Solutions.

Lykes has entered into a long-term agreement with Verenium and BP to provide land and biomass for a commercial cellulosic ethanol facility in Highlands County, now under construction. "Biofuels are a significant economic and environmental opportunity," says Ferguson, "not just for Lykes and for agriculture in general but for Florida."

The firm, along with fellow agricultural powerhouse A. Duda & Sons, also wants to develop an intermodal logistics center in rural Glades County.

6 Deseret Ranches of Florida

Deseret Ranches of Florida
[Photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]

Privately owned by the Mormon Church
Florida acres: 290,000
Headquarters: Salt Lake City

Prodded by a church leader and cattleman named Henry D. Moyle, the Mormon Church bought the original 54,000 acres of Deseret Ranch in 1950. Today, the ranch is the largest cow-calf operation in the United States, with 44,000 head of cattle on 290,000 acres. Ranch manager Erik Jacobsen, a cowboy with an MBA from Brigham Young, says the church's long-term goal for the property is to maintain cattle, citrus and other agricultural operations, while "being a voice for responsible growth" in the region. The ranch's sister company, Suburban Land Reserve, is working on long-term development plans for Orange County's Innovation Way area that will include homes and commercial space as well as a research park.

7 Mosaic Co.

Mosaic Co.
[Photo: Mosaic Co.]

Publicly held phosphate company (NYSE-MOS)
Florida acres: 254,000
Headquarters: Plymouth, Minn.

Formed in 2004 by a merger of Cargill Crop Nutrition and IMC Global, Mosaic is the largest phosphate supplier in the world and mines 100% of its phosphate from Florida. In January, Cargill announced plans to sell its 64% stake in Mosaic. The tax-free transaction is meant to satisfy terms of various charitable trusts and foundations set up by Cargill family heirs. Richard Mack, executive vice president and general counsel, says the sale should give the company the liquidity and flexibility it needs to plan and invest in the long-term future of its Florida lands.

Roughly two-thirds of Mosaic's Florida holdings have been mined.

The company expects to keep mining a portion of the remaining third for the next few decades as it develops new business models, which will include creating upscale eco-resorts on reclaimed land. Mosaic's first move is the luxury resort Streamsong, pictured above in an artist's rendering. The resort is under construction in southwestern Polk County on 16,000 acres of former phosphate land near Fort Meade and the Hardee County line.

8 Bascom Southern

Managed by Campbell Group on behalf of pension funds and endowments
Florida acres: 194,000
Headquarters: Portland, Ore.

Campbell Group manages timberland across the nation on behalf of institutional investors. Its Florida operations, known as the Bascom Southern timberlands, are run out of a modest storefront off U.S. Highway 19 in Dixie County's Cross City by local timber man Glenn Osteen. From the home office in Portland, Campbell managing director Jerry Brodie says the company wants to keep its Florida land in pine for the long term and has no plans to develop real estate or sell acreage.

9 Florida Crystals

Florida Crystals

Privately held agricultural, real estate and energy company owned by the Fanjul family
Florida acres: 155,000
Headquarters: West Palm Beach

Florida Crystals is the umbrella company for the business interests of the Fanjul family, which owns 240,000 acres in the Dominican Republic along with its Florida acreage. Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul Jr. and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul run the company as president and CEO. Its principal business is to produce and sell sugar. With three mills, a refinery and packaging and distribution plant, Florida Crystals also grows, mills and markets rice. Its renewable-energy plant converts biomass — waste such as leftover sugar cane stalks — to electricity for its sugar operations and about 60,000 homes.

This year, Florida Crystals is developing the South Florida Regional Intermodal Logistic Center in western Palm Beach County in partnership with the Port of Palm Beach. But the Fanjuls expect to remain primarily in the sugar business, not real estate.

"Around the edges we have properties that may be used for other purposes, but I would say the fundamental outlook that we have for agricultural properties is to continue trying to produce food," says Alfy Fanjul. "Sugar has been very stable. Sugar is in great demand."

10 U.S. Sugar Corp.

U.S. Sugar Co.
[Photo: Mark Vaughn]

Private agricultural company owned by Mott foundations and company employees
Florida acres: 153,000
Headquarters: Clewiston

Depending on weather, growing conditions and federal subsidies, U.S. Sugar produces about 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year, about 10% of the sugar produced in America. It also owns a short-line railroad, the South Central Florida Express.

The economic slump withered a deal to sell the company's land to the state for Everglades restoration, and the South Florida Water Management District last fall purchased only 26,800 acres. The district kept an option to buy the remaining 153,000 acres, but Gov. Rick Scott campaigned against the deal — and has recommended Florida's water management districts slash budgets.

CEO Bob Buker says U.S. Sugar has a double set of long-term plans for its Florida lands, depending on whether the sale goes through: "If the state buys all the land, we farm it only until they need it for restoration," he says. "If not, we continue farming. Unfortunately, in Florida that means fighting off the government. Government is making it much harder for farmers to farm here in Florida."