May 7, 2021

Economic yearbook 2011

Florida's Biggest Private Landowners

The 10 — which own about a tenth of the state — will play a key role in Florida's future.

Cynthia Barnett | 4/1/2011

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

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