The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun closing on an $89 million conservation project in central Florida that is one of the largest easement acquisitions in the history of the agency’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will provide the funds to secure permanent easements on five properties totaling more than 26,000 acres (10,526 ha) in the Northern Everglades Watershed in remote Highlands County about 130 miles (208 km) south of Orlando. The easements will enhance wetlands, wildlife habitat, and the quality of the water draining into the Everglades.

Dean Saunders of Saunders
Real Estate

The project represents more than a year’s work for Dean Saunders of Saunders Real Estate, a Lakeland, Florida–based and Coldwell Banker–affiliated land brokerage, who represented two of the four landholders involved in the transaction. But in a larger sense, it is the culmination of Saunders’ life’s work, work that began when the University of Florida graduate joined then-Senator Lawton Chiles’ staff as agriculture liaison. “It all started 18 years,” he recalls.

Back then, the idea of selling away the right to develop land was considered heresy, not just by landowners but by environmentalists, too. “Ranchers thought I was a communist, and conservationists thought I was a fascist,” says ULI member Saunders, whose partner in another venture, Saunders Ralston Realty, is ULI member and commercial real estate broker Gary Ralston. “But in that they both want to protect the land, they have a lot more in common than people think.”

When Chiles retired from the Senate in 1988, Saunders, a sixth-generation Floridian who majored in citrus, went to work selling ranches, groves, and other parcels of undeveloped land. But when Chiles became the Sunshine State’s governor two years later, Saunders joined his staff in Tallahassee. Then, in 1994, the then-32-year-old Saunders embarked on his own political career, winning a seat in the Florida House by a slim five-vote margin over his Republican opponent. Saunders was reelected for another two-year term in 1996. But the next time around, he decided not to run for reelection, and he resumed his real estate career.

During his four-year stint in the state house, he left his mark by giving life to a 1990 constitutional amendment that set aside $300 million in bond funds to buy conservation properties over a ten-year period. In those days, conservationists believed that land had to be purchased or regulated in order to be protected. But landowners thought otherwise; that regulation was the enemy that should be avoided at all costs. And consequently, the so-called P2000 setaside remained idle.

So to gain the trust of landowners, Saunders introduced the Green Swamp Land Protection Act, a $30 million, three-year measure that was set up as an independent agency to acquire easements in a predefined, prime recharge area in parts of just two counties, Polk and Lake. “Up to this time, landowners resented state agencies for trying to regulate their land in order to protect it,” he says. “The state had recently proposed down-zoning the land by cutting densities by up to 75 percent, so there was no trust at all in the traditional process.”

The bill passed, and landowners responded as Saunders had hoped. And when the P2000 program came up for review, Saunders, who was by then chairman of the National Resources Subcommittee in the House, “decided to go for the mother lode” by supporting a change that allowed other state agencies to use funds to buy easements as well as land.

“I’m an incredibly strong believer in property rights,” the land broker says. “I also believe in conservation. And in that regard, the government doesn’t need to buy everything; it can buy just the development rights. That way, the government can double the amount of land it protects because it pays less for a conservation easement than what it would cost to buy the land.”

Saunders’ idea wasn’t particularly novel; similar programs were active in a half-dozen other states. But when his bill became law in 1994, it was a Florida first, prompting one still-unconvinced landowner to tell him he was “crazier than a sprayed roach.”

Fast-forward to a few years ago, when Saunders “stumbled onto the opportunity of a lifetime” along Fisheating Creek, a watershed tributary that flows into Lake Okeechobee. Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in Florida and the seventh largest in the country. It covers 730 square miles (1,868 sq km), or roughly half the size of Rhode Island, but it is exceptionally shallow for such a large body, with an average depth of just nine feet (3 m).

“I knew the state and the Nature Conservancy were interested in doing something there, and I thought this was exactly what they were looking for,” says Saunders. “So I approached two of the area’s biggest landowners about the possibility of selling their development rights. When they signaled their interest, I approached a third owner, who already had sold an easement to part of his land, to see if he wanted to include more. It was an alignment of the stars.”

It took 12 months to put the entire deal together, but the land broker says it was well worth the effort. “For me, this is an incredibly significant moment, and not just because I got paid, although that certainly is part of it. This is the right way to do clean water management—naturally, the way it has always been done—as opposed to huge, ugly dikes. And it’s one of those nuggets I may never see again. When I had this crazy idea, I was a voice in the wilderness. But we pulled it off. It is certainly gratifying to see that something I knew could be successful has been successful.”

According to the agriculture deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the Northern Everglades Watershed is “one of the last frontiers for large-scale land conservation” in Florida. The enrollment of the five properties, which range in size from 941 to 11,105 acres (381 to 4,496 ha), in the WRP will not only result in significant wetlands restoration and protection, but also provide important habitat for rare and endangered animals, including Florida’s black bear and panther. WRP is a voluntary program that provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands in exchange for retiring eligible land from agriculture. According to the USDA, nearly 2.2 million acres (890,688 ha) are enrolled in the program.

While owners are compensated for granting conservation easements, which are typically made in perpetuity, their main goal usually isn’t profit; rather, it is to protect the land and keep it in their families, according to Saunders. “I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve done with people whose primary interest is seeing their land protected,” he says. “That, and being able to pass it to their heirs. Easements are a great way to aid in generational transfer without incurring huge estate taxes.”

There are several types of conservation easements, including purchase, donated, or regulatory. Not every parcel is a good candidate. Generally, it depends on the location and attributes of the property, as well as its size. Land that is home to endangered plants or animals is usually eligible, as is land containing unique water resources or that is adjacent to government-owned property. There is no minimum restriction on the size of the property, though something as small as 100 acres (40.5 ha) is generally acceptable only if it is within a specific geographic boundary.