BY ANNE CHECKOSKY
In a unanimous vote with little discussion, the Palm Beach County Commission took a giant step Tuesday in settling an issue that has plagued the county since 2004.
The commissioners voted to sell the Mecca Farms property north of The Acreage to the South Florida Water Management District. They also voted unanimously to move forward with plans to build a shooting range on the northwest corner of the Mecca land and an all-terrain vehicle park on county-owned land near 20-Mile Bend.
After an overwhelming show of public support for the three measures from scores of supporters ranging from residents to National Rifle Association officials to environmental group representatives — all of whom showed up to speak at the meeting, Palm Beach County Mayor Steve Abrams asked his fellow commissioners if they had any comment.
“I wish this would have occurred in 2006,” said District 6 Commissioner Jess Santamaria to applause from the audience.
“We need to get this monkey off our backs,” District 5 Commissioner Mary Lou Berger agreed.
The deal now goes back to the SFWMD Board of Governors for approval. Commissioners anticipate a final vote in September.
The county will sell the 1,920 acres situated between the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area and The Acreage community to the SFWMD for $26 million. That’s far less than the $60 million the county paid for it in 2004 when it hoped to turn it into a home for the Scripps Research Institute. Legal and environmental challenges to developing the land derailed that plan, and after Scripps ultimately decided to build its facility in Jupiter, the county was stuck with the land. Supporting documents show it costs the county $250,000 a year to maintain the property.
Last May, SFWMD officials approached the county about buying the land. But the county and district couldn’t agree on a sale price at that time because of differing appraisals. Eventually, county staff rejected their initial goal of holding out for property values to rebound. They also rejected the idea of shopping the property for development, as this would require a lengthy and costly process and would put them at risk of legal challenges, coupled with a lack of community support.
The district will use the property for two main purposes: to restore water flow to the Loxahatchee River and to enhance flood control for The Acreage. It became clear after Tropical Storm Isaac last August that the SFWMD needed an enhanced flood plan for The Acreage. Acquiring the property will allow the SFWMD to better manage its resources to deal with floodwaters.
The only disagreement among those who commented publicly on the sale was whether the county should reserve land to eventually expand Seminole Pratt Whitney Road north to the Beeline Highway. Several residents urged commissioners not to seal the deal without making a provision for that.
“I pray that you save your easements and your right of way,” Indian Trail Improvement District Vice President Carol Jacobs said.
County Administrator Robert Weisman promised to discuss the easements and future road with SFWMD officials as part of the negotiating process. Environmentalists, however, oppose the road.
The county plans to use the proceeds from the sale of Mecca to balance its budget and pay down its debt, Weisman said.
Commissioners also voted unanimously to reimburse Pope Farms $15,000. In 2011, county staff recommended Mecca Farms be used for agriculture purposes as a way to recoup some of its costs. In December of that year, a request for proposals was put out. In March 2012, Pope Farms was selected. But concerns about the terms of the proposed lease, and plans to burn sugar cane on the property, led to it being postponed. Pope Farms had requested $23,000 for reimbursement of its expenses.
As part of the purchase agreement between the county and the SFWMD for Mecca, county staff recommended that the SFWMD provide 150 acres of land to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to build a public shooting range. This is to satisfy requests from the public for such a facility dating back to the 1970s.
The public comment portion of the meeting showed passionate support for the project as speaker after speaker came forward to say how strongly they felt this was needed in Palm Beach County. They pointed out that no such facility exists here, and that they routinely travel to Okeechobee or Broward counties to participate in sport shooting activities. Speakers also pointed out the economic boon the county is missing out on because of the lack of such a facility.
The range would be built in four phases beginning in 2014 with a temporary clubhouse, range office, driveways and parking to be completed by 2015. Phase Two, building a 15-station sporting clays course, would be complete by 2016. Phase Three, building an international Olympic bunker trap, eight trap fields and four combination trap/skeet fields would be completed in 2018. And a clubhouse, pro shop and spectator stands would be completed by 2019.
The price tag for the project stands at $5.1 million. The funds would come from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Financial Aid, according to a county staff report. The FWC would oversee design, construction and operation of the shooting range. The county and the FWC have tried to bring such a project to fruition over the last 10 years without success. The last attempt came in 2007, when the FWC donated 95 acres for such a facility to be built near 20-Mile Bend, but it never happened.
A few in the audience expressed skepticism that the project will be completed, but most were grateful and thanked commissioners for not giving up on it.
In an item not related to the Mecca sale, but affecting the western communities, the commissioners also unanimously voted to study building an ATV park near 20-Mile Bend. Staff recommended the study after it said the county’s parks department received numerous requests for such a park. An overwhelming majority of those who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment section favored such a move.
County staff pointed out during its presentation that presently there is no safe place to ride an ATV in the county. The closest ATV park is in Collier County on the west coast. They pointed out the park would likely draw patrons from a 50-mile radius. They also pointed out the economic benefit the county would receive in job creation, fuel purchases, lodging and opportunities for motor sports events. The FWC submitted a letter in support of the project.
The approval vote allows county staff to conduct a formal needs analysis, capital cost estimate and feasibility study.
ABOVE: The Palm Beach County Commission.