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Crist downsizes Everglades restoration land deal

His hand forced by a failing economy, Gov. Charlie Crist is poised to dramatically downsize his proposed Big Sugar buyout – and his vision for Everglades restoration.

The new agreement with the U.S. Sugar Corp., which Crist hinted Wednesday could come within days, is intended to salvage a massive land purchase the governor and environmentalists call essential to restoring the struggling River of Grass. But it will come in a smaller size and at a cheaper price that won't bankrupt the state agency footing the bill.

Final details and figures remain fluid. But sources close to the negotiations said that instead of paying $1.34 billion for all 180,000 acres owned by U.S. Sugar, the revised deal will be closer to $500 million for 75,000 acres, with wiggle room in both land and price.

The overhaul, hammered out during weeks of negotiations in Tallahassee, confirms what critics of the controversial deal had charged for months and supporters had begun to acknowledge: The price tag had simply become too high for a state with staggering budget shortfalls, rising unemployment and plummeting property values and tax revenues.

"I think everyone has looked at the numbers and realized the affordability is a problem in this current economy," said Eric Buermann, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, which had planned to bankroll the deal with bonds.

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