581-acre piece of Ag Reserve, bought with public money, could be sold

The South Florida Water Management District has designated a 581-acre piece of Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve as “surplus” and available for sale, increasing fears of more development in a farming zone that some believe is being gobbled up by builders.

Environmentalists and preservationists who oppose the district’s decision say taxpayers could get stiffed on a sale, as the district has set a minimum sale price of $10 million — less than the $13.7 million the district paid for a 61 percent stake in the property in 2006 and less than the $23.5 million the county paid in 2000 when it bought a slightly larger piece of land that includes the 581 acres.

District spokesman Randy Smith said the $10 million minimum sales price is based on a 2015 appraisal. A new appraisal will be completed soon, he said, and the minimum price is likely to rise to somewhere around $15 million.

Even at $15 million, however, the new purchaser — possibly the Pero farming family that currently leases the property — would be getting a deal in comparison to what the county paid 16 years ago.

The county, using some of the $150 million in bond money approved by voters in 1999, bought 624 acres at $37,660 per acre. At that per-acre value, the 581-acre tract would cost $21.9 million.

If the land is sold for $15 million, the buyer would have paid $25,818 per acre, a bargain of nearly $12,000 per acre.

Because the land is still jointly owned by the district and the county, a majority of the seven-member county commission would have to approve the sale.

At least two commissioners, Paulette Burdick and Melissa McKinlay, oppose the sale, arguing that Ag Reserve land purchased with public funds should remain in public ownership.

That’s also the view of Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center.

“When voters approved the bond referendum, the promise was that that the land would be preserved forever,” Interlandi said. “Selling our preserve land undermines the agricultural reserve and is a bad deal for taxpayers.”

District Executive Director Peter Antonacci told the district’s board of governors Thursday that the district no longer has a public use for the land, which should be sold.

The district used money from the U.S. Department of the Interior to purchase its stake in the land. Plans at that time called for the land to be the site of a reservoir that would be part of the district’s Everglades restoration efforts.

But the district has identified a site in Martin County as more suitable and now wants to recoup the money spent on the Pero farms tract.

“We need the money to buy land for other projects,” Antonacci told district board members. “There’s nothing nefarious about it. It’s just something that needs to be done. There is a large sum of dead money that’s on your books that should be put to the purpose of Everglades restoration.”

In a nod to the county’s initial intent in purchasing the land, the district is working on a conservation easement that would restrict the land’s use to agriculture.

“I don’t anticipate anyone wanting this land for anything other than agriculture,” board member Melanie Peterson said.

The board unanimously approved its staff’s recommendation to declare the land surplus and available for sale.

Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue early next month.

Environmentalists and preservationists worry that an easement restricting the land’s use to agriculture won’t be enough to keep it from being developed at some later point.

Future political office-holders could approve a request to lift those restrictions, they said.

“There is no way to put any land in Palm Beach County in agriculture permanently,” said Martha Musgrove of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of three groups that urged district board members not to designate the Pero tract as surplus.

District board members, however, stuck to their plans to have the land declared surplus.

“There is no reason for the district to own land that it doesn’t need for public purposes,” Kevin Powers, the board’s vice chairman said in a release announcing its decision. “That is why we declared this property surplus. While this sale benefits all residents, it also provides double the assurance the public is looking for that this land will never be developed. This is good for conservation, good for the environment and good for taxpayers.”

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