Photo: May by Teresanne Cossetta RussellEarlier this year, AgReserves, an affiliate of the Mormon Church, bought more than 380,000 acres in Florida's Panhandle. The church already owned almost 300,000 acres at its Deseret Ranches property in central Florida.
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The Mormon Church - Land Lord
In March, St. Joe Co. Finalized the $562-million sale of about 383,000 acres in northwest Florida to a Utah-based organization called AgReserves, a tax-paying affiliate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
With that, the Mormon Church became Florida's largest private landowner. The purchase of the St. Joe land left the church owning more than 670,000 acres in Florida, pushing it past Perry-based Foley Timber and Seattle-based Plum Creek.
The church has a long history in the state: Since 1950, it has owned Deseret Ranches, about 295,000 acres of cow pasture, timberland, citrus groves and vegetable farms in Brevard, Orange and Osceola counties. The church operates one Of the nation's largest cow-calf operations at Deseret, and environmentalists consider the property an important wildlife habitat and water source for nearby rivers.
An AgReserves spokesman declined to discuss the church's reasons for buying the St. Joe acreage, referring instead to public comments it made at the time of the sale. Among the church's core philosophies is a commitment to economic self-reliance, with agriculture playing a key role in preparing the church to weather adverse times by creating a longterm food supply and adequate financial reserves.
AgReserves says it plans to keep the northwest Florida land in agricultural and timber use — most of it is timberland — and promises the same "commitment to wise land stewardship and prudent resource management" that it has shown at Deseret Ranches. "We look to the long term in everything we do," says former Chairman Paul Genho.
Some environmentalists were quick to speculate that mounting development pressure on Deseret prompted the church's Panhandle purchase. Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon Florida, sees the newly acquired property as "replacement land" for Deseret pasture marked for development. "Just looking at it from a strategic standpoint, it certainly gives them a way to maintain and even grow their cattle operation, while allowing some of their cattle land in Osceola County to be transformed into development," he says.
The church has made no secret of its willingness to work with governments in central Florida to accommodate some growth around Deseret's fringes. Last January, Deseret and Osceola County agreed to cooperate on a long-range master plan for 133,000 acres, some owned by Deseret, in the northeastern part of the county, with about a third of the acreage slotted for urban development — and a projected population of 490,000 by 2080. Meanwhile, a task force created by Gov. Rick Scott has begun identifying possible routes for a new highway between Melbourne and Orlando, an area dominated by Deseret.
Almost no one expects the church to move anytime soon to develop the property in northwest Florida. Located in a rural area away from the coast, the Panhandle tract is "not what you'd typically look for if you were scoping out" land for development, says Charles Pattison, policy director at 1000 Friends of Florida. "It's some of the most rural land in the whole state."
After the sale was announced, Pattison met with church representatives, who conveyed the importance of farming and other agricultural pursuits to the Mormon philosophy of economic self-reliance.
"This was philosophically something that was important to the church — to have a reliable source of food and fiber production going forward," he says. "I certainly didn't get the impression that you're going to see much change over the next 25 to 50 years, in this area in particular."
The Mormon Church's Land Holdings
Earlier this year, AgReserves, an affiliate of the Mormon Church, bought more than 380,000 acres in Florida's Panhandle. The church already owned almost 300,000 acres at its Deseret Ranches property in central Florida.
St. Joe: Smaller
Footprint Founded in 1936 by the late businessman Edward Ball, St. Joe Co. Was once the ultimate Florida landowner. At its peak, the former timber giant owned more than a million acres in Florida. But it has been selling off land for more than a decade as it shifts its focus to community and commercial development. The sale of a large swath of timberland to the Mormon Church further reduces its footprint. St. Joe, headquartered in the coastal Panhandle community of Watersound, now owns about 184,000 acres in Florida, putting it well below the state's current top landowner, the Mormon Church.