Caught between angry preservationists and a South Florida Water Management District threatening legal action, Palm Beach County commissioners are expected to decide Tuesday whether to sell a 571-acre chunk of the Agricultural Reserve that was purchased with public money in 2000.
The decision could have far-reaching impacts for the Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming zone located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. There is also the prospect of the public losing millions on a sale.
When the district’s governing board declared the land surplus and available for sale, it set a minimum price of $10 million — $13 million less than the county and the water management district paid in 2000 for a slightly bigger piece of land that includes the 571 acres. District officials said that minimum price was based on an old appraisal and that the official minimum price is likely to be closer to $15 million.
Even a sale at that price, however, would be a loss for taxpayers.
Appraisals of the property, located west of State Road 7, have come in at $15.4 million and $14.7 million. County staff members, providing commissioners with background information as they consider the issue, say the appraisal figures are lower than the 2000 price tag $23 million because some of the original 627 acres have been sold and because development rights tied to the remaining land has been retired, making it less valuable to someone who would quickly seek to build upon it.
Because the property is jointly owned, the county has to sign off on a sale. Five of the seven-member commission would have to agree to proceed with a sale of the property.
Two commissioners — new County Mayor Paulette Burdick and Commissioner Melissa McKinlay — have said they believe land purchased with public money for agriculture and preservation should remain in public hands.
The county’s staff is recommending that commissioners proceed with a sale. Staff members notes that, if the county refuses to go along with a sale, the water management district is likely to sue to force a sale.
Larry Tolchinsky of Sackrin and Tolchinsky, a Broward County firm specializing in real estate law, said state law does allow for such a suit.
Speaking in general terms and not specifically on a possible dispute between Palm Beach County and the water management district, Tolchinsky said: “One party can seek partition and ask the court to force the sale of the property.”
Selling under those circumstances, staff members say, could increase the very development prospects preservationists and environmentalists fear, for the county would have rejected a district-county plan to place restrictions on the property limiting its use to agriculture.
Environmentalists and preservationists, however, argue that such limits, known as conservation easements, can be lifted. Indeed, when the water management district’s governing board meets on Thursday, one of the items on its agenda is a request to lift conservation easements on a three and a half acre piece of land in Lee County.
“Conservation easements can be undone, and they are undone as a matter of course,” said Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center. “It is wholly unprotective for the long term. It provides zero public protection.”
Tuesday’s vote could be the latest change for a piece of property with a long history in the county. The county’s staff and the staff of the water management district have used slightly different acreage figures in detailing some of that history.
According to a background report compiled by county staff members, the water management and the county — using some of the $150 million in bond money approved by voters in 1999 — bought a 627-acre tract known as McMurrain Farms in 2000 for $23 million.
The Pero farming family, which leases the land for its operations, asked about buying a chunk and the water management district, looking to build a reservoir to aid in Everglades restoration, wanted to control another piece of it.
The water management district paid the county $13.7 million for a 61 percent stake in 571 acres of the McMurrain property. Pero bought a 57-acre piece of it for just over $1 million and is expected to be a bidder for the 571 acres if the county agrees with the district’s plan to sell them.
The district no longer wants to use the McMurrain property as the site of a reservoir after determining that a site in Martin County is more suitable. Now, the district wants to recoup what it paid for its stake in the property, known alternatively as the McMurrain tract or the Pero Farms tract.
County documents indicate the county gets just under $119,000 per year in lease revenue from the property.
If the property is sold for $15.4 million, those documents state, the county’s share would be $6.1 million, with the water management district getting $9.3 million.
“Staff believes that a sale of the property subject to conservation easements is a practical solution which allows SFWMD to recoup its investment while providing maximum protection against future change in use of the property,” the county staff report states.
Interlandi does not share that assessment. On a variety of fronts, she said, selling the land is a bad idea.
“The county selling this land would be a horrible deal for Palm Beach County taxpayers,” Interlandi said. “This would be the worst assault on the Ag Reserve by an order of many magnitudes.”