The Palm Beach County Commission gave tentative approval Tuesday to a deal trading the 1,900-acre Mecca Farms property for $30 million and 1,400 acres of land.
The proposal could resolve what has been a years-long conundrum for the county. The county bought the land, off Northlake Blvd. just north of The Acreage, in 2004 for the development of Scripps Florida’s planned biotech complex. The location was challenged by environmentalists, and Scripps eventually ended up building its campus in Jupiter.
This left the county holding the partially built Mecca property as a white elephant.
Under the proposed deal, the South Florida Water Management District is requesting free title to the 1,919-acre Mecca property minus some county right-of-way. In exchange for the property, preliminary negotiations would transfer about 1,495 acres in five separate parcels of SFWMD land with an assessed value of about $24.66 million to the county, plus a cash payment of $30 million.
Additionally, existing leases on the SFWMD properties will generate $305,000 in income per year, and it is possible some parcels could be sold.
The county originally bought the property for $60 million and then put millions into infrastructure improvements. Mecca costs the county about $250,000 a year to secure and maintain, in addition to debt service payments of about $6.5 million per year from 2012 through 2015, about $3.8 million per year between 2016 and 2025, and about $610,000 per year for the remaining three years of debt service.
Proceeds from the sale would be used to offset future debt service requirements. Although the county still owes about $45 million in principal on the Mecca Farms acquisition and other costs associated with the purchase, the debt would not need to be paid off before swapping the land.
Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center said it wholeheartedly supports the deal.
“We see this item as a great end to the saga of Mecca Farms and a really great result for the citizens of Palm Beach County,” she said. “The water management district, to my knowledge, has already identified funding for the design and construction of the water storage features on Mecca Farms, so we’re very hopeful that the project in the near future [will provide] water flow to the Loxahatchee River.”
Interlandi said that one of the main reasons environmentalists opposed the Scripps project at Mecca Farms was that the land had been identified by the water management district as an important location for water storage for the Loxahatchee River.
“We really were concerned that we wouldn’t have the water that that river needed if we didn’t put water storage there,” she said. “We are very glad to see that, and hopefully in the very near future, and we hope that you will support this deal.”
Former County Commissioner Jeff Koons, who served as chairman of the Water Resource Advisory Committee, which created the North Palm Beach Everglades Plan to recharge the Loxahatchee River, said he approved of the deal with reservations about the source of the water that would fill the proposed reservoir.
“I favor this deal, but I would urge you to inspect where the water is coming from and where the water is going to go,” he said. “If you go up there today, you’ll see the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area is at 19 feet. The Loxahatchee Slough that the county manages is at 17 feet. There are different water storage levels at different areas up there. That is the richest water basin in South Florida, and that was the purpose of being able to go in there. Mecca’s got to get water from somewhere.”
The North Palm Beach Everglades Plan is designed to have water go north to the Loxahatchee Slough from there, Koons explained.
Joanne Davis of 1000 Friends of Florida thanked the commission for engaging the SFWMD in the deal. “I really appreciate the effort that is being made here,” she said.
Davis pointed out that the city’s water catchment area is being held at 19 feet because it is being used for water storage. “The Loxahatchee Slough and other water catchment areas are being managed as natural areas,” she said. “They are being managed at as close as they can get to the historic levels that those resources should have been at prior to drainage and development.”
Davis said she thought county staff members have excellent qualifications to work with the SFWMD on the restoration process, and they have already begun the process at little cost to taxpayers.
“If the district and the county can get together on this, I think we will have a wonderful situation for Mecca Farms, the Loxahatchee River, the northern water supply and Grassy Waters,” Davis said.
Commissioner Karen Marcus made the motion for conceptual approval. “This will be the significant water to the Loxahatchee River that we have been waiting for, but it will also help Everglades restoration because the water that was previously slated to go to the north will now go to the south, so you get a double win,” Marcus said. “Not only does it fix the Lox River, it will do it a lot quicker, and it also supports Everglades restoration. Hopefully we will move it forward and come back with a good agreement for everybody.”
Commissioner Jess Santamaria said the proposal is a good conclusion to a longstanding problem. “I could not have asked for a better conclusion to this Mecca Farms situation that has concerned all of us for the past six or seven years,” Santamaria said.
Commissioner Steven Abrams said that in addition to the environmental benefits, the proposed agreement allows the county to cut its losses and improve its budget picture.
Abrams asked whether the county has taken into account in its value assessments that development is planned on the Vavrus property to the east of Mecca and that the Mecca property is also partially developed.
Intergovernmental Liaison Todd Bonlarron said the county and the SFWMD are both conducting due diligence, but that current values are based on the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s valuation as well as independent appraisers’ valuations.
The motion by Marcus for approval of the tentative agreement carried unanimously.