TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – April 21, 2014 – A Mormon Church-affiliated firm is in line to purchase 142 acres of vacant land in Hillsborough County from the state, with the money potentially helping Florida's future efforts to preserve environmentally sensitive land.

State staff has recommended Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Tuesday approve the $803,000 sale of two non-contiguous parcels to Farmland Reserve Inc. (FRI), a corporate entity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The money is expected to become part of a revamped Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) program that raises money for Florida Forever land purchases.

The program was shifted in March from selling surplus parcels within environmentally sensitive sites to putting non-commercial space on the market. The Hillsborough County land was once slated to be an alternative education facility for juvenile offenders.

Since changing gears on the land sale program, the state department has started offering for sale a number of sites, mostly closed prisons, which could bring in more than $20 million for Florida Forever. The total is based upon appraised values.

Spokesmen for Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi said in emails Wednesday that they look "forward to hearing" more about the proposed sale to Farmland Reserve.

Deseret Ranches of Florida, the operational name for Farmland in Florida, intends to use the land to expand its existing agricultural operations that now include more than 312,000 acres in the Sunshine State.

"The property FRI is purchasing in Hillsborough County adjoins existing agricultural land owned by FRI," Deseret Ranches general manager Erik Jacobsen said in an email. "Our intent is to expand our agricultural operations on this additional acreage."

The pending Farmland Reserve purchase comes on the heels of AgReserves, Inc., another Mormon Church affiliate, purchasing 382,834 acres of timberland in Northwest Florida. The land was purchased in November for $565 million from St. Joe Co., long one of Florida largest and most-influential landowners.

The Hillsborough County sale would be the second to get approved by Scott and the Cabinet since the DEP made non-commercial lands the focus of efforts to raise money for land preservation.

Scott and the Cabinet, showing support in March for the refocused DEP program, approved the $15.6 million sale of the former A.G. Holley state tuberculosis hospital in Lantana.

"The attorney general supports the best use of all state-owned property, and if a state agency determines that it no longer needs a piece of non-conservation land, the Board of Trustees (the governor and Cabinet) will decide if it's in the best interest of the state to sell the property," Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi, said in an email Wednesday.

The shift to selling non-commercial sites also has the support of the environmental community.

"We have supported the state's conservation lands programs for decades .We believe that the state has non-conservation lands that it makes sense to sell," Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said in an email.

The use of the money from non-commercial sites for Florida Forever purchases also awaits approval from state lawmakers, who initially devised the program last year to sell parts of environmentally protected sites as a means to protect natural springs and water resources and to buffer military bases.

The Senate's current budget proposal includes $40 million for land acquisition through the state's Internal Improvement Trust Fund. The House is countering with $55 million, of which $40 million would come from the sale of non-conservation land.

The state is waiting for Southeast Legacy Investments, the buyer of the A.G. Holley site, to complete a 90-day due-diligence review before the sale is closed, noted DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger.

"If the current legislation passes as it is currently written, we will be able to use those funds to purchase conservation land beginning in FY 2014-2015," Burger said in an email.

However, as the pending Farmland Reserve purchase demonstrates, the state isn't guaranteed to get the full-appraised value of any site.

The two parcels in Hillsborough County, both west of Interstate 75, south of the Little Manatee River, had been appraised at $945,000 in December. But after no bids were submitted to purchase the land, the price was marked down in March to $803,000, which had been the previously appraised value of the land.

Farmland Reserve was the only company to submit a bid for the land in March.

The land was among 368 acres in 1996 that Alternative Education Institute, Inc., a not-for-profit state-appointed organization, was expected to use for an alternative education facility for juvenile offenders. The facility was never built, the land was transferred to the Department of Management Services, and 225 acres went to Hillsborough County for construction of South County Vocational High School.

Other sites the DEP has put on the market include former correctional institutions in Hendry, Broward, Hillsborough, Glades and Indian River counties, a closed driver's license office in Highlands County, former youth camp land along the Bell River in Nassau County and a vacant parcel in Plantation.

Source: News Service of Florida, Jim Turner

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