Florida Dept of Environmental Protection Okays Big Land Value Increase for Florida Mitigation Bank in Cook County: Will Other Wetlands Protected Areas Also Get Higher Values Soon? Probably.
Last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) okayed a big jump in the valuation of a tract of land held by the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank. This land, found in Clay County, will now be valued at almost twice what it was before, according to FDEP and much more than some state agency officials - and a state judge - had previously determined. What's going on here?
It's a story about a mitigation bank. Mitigation banks are not liked by everyone, in fact they are pretty controversial because of the risks involved regarding natural resources and in particular, the Florida wetlands.
What are mitigation banks?
They can be found in a handful of states across the country, having been created by the federal government (read the Federal Rule here) to protect wetlands and streams in order to shelter, encourage, and promote things like wildlife habitats, water quality, and diverse ecological areas or regions. These mitigation banks also comport with the Clean Water Act's designated purpose of cleaning up and protecting the quality of American waters.
Mitigation banks are currently overseen in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and West Virginia.
They are located in environmentally vulnerable, rural areas and they are used to protect and promote that environmental quality in order to balance against land development that is taking place in the state.
Here in Florida, these land banks are protecting Florida wetlands (Everglades) and their related uplands.
The news is that Florida's environmental agency has looked at the Cook County land bank and okayed the request to up the value of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank. FDEP reasons that this tract has been a pilot project for them, where they tested out rules to apply to Florida wetlands and now, with uniquely strict oversight, they are going to value the land by actual environmental restoration on the land itself. They are looking at specific criteria, like confirming the number of trees on the tract as well as how high those trees have grown.
Critics are arguing that this is just going to end up hurting Florida in the long run, because these values are overreaching and in the end, developers are going to profit while the wetlands are going to lose.
What is the Highland Ranch Mitigation Bank?
The Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank is a tract of land in Clay County, Florida, that totals 1575 acres which was purchased by a group of investors for around $15,000,000 in 2008. Before this, a private equity company had estimated the potential value of this land to be around $116 million. That's right: about ten times what they paid for it back then.
A state administrative law judge valued the land at 200 state agency wetland-destruction credits. State agency reviews did so, as well. However, a couple of private companies disagreed, arguing that Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank should be valued at 688 credits, and the FDEP has listened to their take on things.
Result: somewhat splitting the baby, FDEP has found the value to be at 425 credits.
What does this mean? We should be looking for other reevaluations of Florida's mitigation banks in the future.