By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., Nov 8 (Reuters) - The Mormon church is poisedto become the largest private landowner in Florida as a resultof a deal to buy nearly 400,000 acres in the state's Panhandleregion.
The property is mostly timberland, and the church "intendsto maintain timber and agricultural uses of the lands,"according to a statement released by St. Joe Company, a Floridareal estate firm.
The signed sales agreement with the church's company,AgReserves Inc., for $565 million is subject to regulatory andshareholder approvals, according to the statement. The companyexpects the deal to be finalized in the first quarter of 2014.
Paul Genho, chairman of AgReserves, Inc., in St. Joe'sstatement, described the entity as a "tax-paying affiliate ofThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," also known asthe Mormon church.
The Mormon church was already one of Florida's largestlandowners. For more than 60 years, the church has owned DeseretRanches, a 290,000 cattle and citrus operation straddling threecounties in Central Florida, approximately 50 miles southeast ofdowntown Orlando.
Deseret operates the largest cow-calf ranch in the nationwith 44,000 head of cattle, according to a ranking by the tradepublication Northern Ag Network.
Deseret's website states it is owned by Farmland Reserveswhich is a non-profit company. Another firm, Deseret Cattle andCitrus, which is responsible for ranch operations, is a divisionof AgReserves.
The addition of St. Joe's 382,834 acres brings the church'sFlorida holdings to 672,834 acres, or almost 2 percent of thestate's land mass. The total does not include smaller isolatedchurch parcels for its Orlando and South Florida temples andother interests.
St. Joe, which once owned a million acres and wascreated as a paper mill enterprise by a member of the familythat founded the chemical company DuPont, will shrink itsholdings dramatically to 184,000 acres primarily in NorthwestFlorida for future real estate development, according to thecompany's statement.
Although virtually all of the church's holdings remain inrural and agricultural uses, the church has plans approved byOsceola County for future development of a 19,000-acre sectionof the Deseret Ranches located 10 miles from OrlandoInternational Airport. The area is near the route of the AllAboard Florida privately funded train between Orlando and Miamiplanned for a 2015 launch.