Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson wants to quickly spend $300 million in land-conservation money that became available as he took office this month.
Also, Simpson told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday he wants to target additional parcels so that his office can move rapidly if lawmakers approve more money for land acquisition and preservation.
“If you ever want to spend more than today on buying these development rights, just wait and buy them tomorrow, they’ll be more expensive,” said Simpson, who was sworn into office on Jan. 3. “And in five years from now, they’ll be 20 (percent) or 30 percent more expensive than they are today.”
In the news: Simpson Drops Florida Concealed Weapons Lawsuit
The 2022-2023 state budget, which took effect in July, held $300 million in conservation money in reserve until Jan. 1, with the department needing to submit a plan on how land will be managed.
Simpson was elected agriculture commissioner in November after serving two years as Senate president. His conservation proposal drew praise Wednesday.
“I’m always happy to give more money for conservation,” said Rep. Lindsay Cross, a St. Petersburg Democrat and environmental scientist who serves on the House panel.
Subcommittee Chairman Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, also alluded to Simpson’s business background as the owner of an egg farm in Trilby.
“My sense is that maybe a reason you can work these deals quicker is that you know the agricultural land owners, you have a relationship, and there is a certain amount of trust,” Altman said.
Simpson expects a big part of the money will go through the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The program spends money on conservation easements, which prevent land from development while allowing farmers and ranchers to continue their operations.
In the news: Florida Citrus Budget Revised Amid Production Drop
To speed up deals, Simpson said the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will create a list of about $1 billion in parcels with “willing sellers.”
“We’re not going to look at a piece of property that we think, ‘That’s our number one pick.’ And then we’re not going to wait for six months for them (the property owner) to give us an answer,” Simpson said. “We’re going to catalog and quantify, and we’re not going to hesitate to go to the next property owner immediately if we’re not able to close the deal with the (initial) property owners.”
Altman said lawmakers will need to consider changes related to easements to make them more “workable” for landowners.
Simpson said the first consideration in deals will be to keep farms and ranches operating.
“Our primary goal is to buy as many development rights of these large tracts of land that we can from farming communities, and then, secondarily, obviously we’re looking for improvements to the environment from that,” he said.