Mormon church-owned company buys huge swath of Florida land

Orlando Sentinel/November 7, 2013

By Kevin Spear

The Mormon church stands to own nearly 2 percent of Florida by completing a deal to buy most of the real estate of the St. Joe Co. for more than a half-billion dollars.

The megapurchase was announced jointly Thursday by a corporate representative of church, which owns the nearly 295,000-acre Deseret Ranches in Central Florida, and by the real-estate and timber business, which has built several communities along the Panhandle coast.

According to the announcement, a church entity, AgReserves Inc., will buy 382,834 acres – the majority of St. Joe's timberlands – in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties for $565 million.

Completion of the deal will leave the Utah-based church with 678,000 acres, an area larger than any other private holding in Florida, according to widely shared but unconfirmed rankings of top landowners.

AgReserves Inc., a taxpaying company of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will maintain timber and agricultural uses of the Panhandle acreage, according to the announcement.

"AgReserves has demonstrated its commitment to wise land stewardship and prudent resource management during more than 60 years of ranching and agricultural operations in east central Florida," said Paul Genho, chairman of AgReserves. "We will apply that same commitment and expertise to managing the property we are acquiring in Florida's panhandle."

Owned by the church for nearly 60 years, Deseret Ranches sprawls across Orange, Osceola and Brevard counties and is increasingly seen as critical to the Orlando region's water supply, road and rail network and future development.

Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam praised the announced deal as long-term investment in the state's timber and cattle business.

"This transaction between two of Florida's largest and most committed land stewards is a meaningful reminder of the economic and ecological value of agriculture in our state," Putnam said.

Charles Pattison, president of the smart-planning group 1000 Friends of Florida, said there has been little pressure for development of the St. Joe timberlands, which are well away from the Panhandle coast.

But Pattison said no other metropolitan area in the state borders such a huge and potentially developable piece of property as Deseret Ranches, which covers a largely roadless and unpopulated area southeast of Orlando.

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order that created the East Central Florida Corridor Task Force to plan for roads, development and environmental protection in an area dominated by Deseret Ranches.

"It is more important than ever that we work together to plan our future," said ranch manager Erik Jacobsen in response to the task force formation. "We look forward to collaborating with leaders from the state and Brevard, Orange and Osceola counties."

With 44,000 head of cattle, the ranch property also is one of the nation's largest producers of calves and manages thousands of acres of citrus groves, vegetable farms and timberlands.

Orlando, Orange County and state water authorities have been planning for years to accommodate growing populations by pumping water from Taylor Creek Reservoir within ranch boundaries.

A St. Joe Co. official said the sale will help the company, to be left with 184,000 acres after the sale, focus on its real-estate development.

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