A while back we noted the big-time announcement in Florida. It began with President Clinton announcing an $8 billion plan in 2000 to restore the Everglades. The state of Florida announced in 2008 that it was going to do its share by acquiring 187,000 acres of land for a cool $1.75 billion (that’s “billion” – with a “b”), eliminating the sugar plantations in that area, so that the surface water could flow naturally toward the sea. This, went the prognostication, would restore the “river of grass,” as the Everglades is sometimes called by nature lovers, to its natural condition. It was to be, in Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s words, the new “holy grail.”
But it didn’t work out that way. In a familiar reenactment of a Kabuki-like process that is all too familiar to those of us acquainted with government land acquisition practices, it turned out that – in the words of the New York Times – “the governor and the [South Florida Water Management D]istrict repeatedly underestimated the purchase’s financial and environmental complications, leading to costly suspension of projects with more immediate benefits, and to the alienation of potential partners.”. . . “[L]ittle thought seemed to have been given to affordability. . .” Damien Cave, For the Everglades, a Dream Loses Much of Its Grandeur, N.Y. Times, August 13, 2010, at p. A15.
So the grandiose project started shrinking. First change came in the form of plan to reduce the scope of the acquisition to only 180,000 acres at a cost of $1.34 billion. That didn’t work out either, for local political reasons, says the Times.
So in 2009, facing “dwindling tax revenues” a third deal was announced: an acquisition of only 72,800 acres at a cost of $536 million. Whether this shrunken deal will work out is still uncertain; it has its critics too.
So what’s the moral of it all? For one thing, here is a reaffirmation of the eternal verity that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it eighty years ago in Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon, the public, the same as private individuals, is entitled only to what it pays for. Second, if there is one thing you can bet the farm on, it is that when the government announces the projected cost of a project, particularly one involving land acquisition, the actual price tag will turn out to be much higher. Back in the 1950s, a California Highway Commissioner wrote an article in which he revealed that actual land acquisition costs ran consistently some 30% higher than the highway planners’ projected figures. Evidently, that much hasn’t changed.