The Palm Beach County Commission approved the sale of the Mecca Farm property to the South Florida Water Management District on Tuesday, ending a decade of frustration that began when the county purchased the property for the Scripps Research Institute, only to be stuck with it when Scripps ended up building at a site in Jupiter after environmentalists objected to Mecca Farms.
The county sold the nearly 2,000-acre former agricultural land to the SFWMD for $26 million.
The county had invested more than $150 million into the land, including $60 million to buy the property. The SFWMD plans to build a water storage and treatment area there that will help restore flow to the Loxahatchee River.
Several Acreage residents raised concerns about access to a county pump station within the property.
Resident Patricia Curry said she supported the sale of the property to the SFWMD, but noted that she has been ignored by SFWMD officials when she has asked them to accept excess water from the Indian Trail Improvement District.
“I don’t know why the water management district is not considering it,” Curry said, pointing out that The Acreage has cleaner water than what the SFWMD receives from the L-8 Canal.
Curry also was not happy with the future proposed alignment of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road to the Beeline Highway, which would run along the south and east sides of Mecca Farms, rather than straight north between the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area and Mecca.
“You’re talking about a four-lane to six-lane road that is going to bring a lot of noise to that area, and it’s not appreciated,” she said.
Curry added that several months ago, Palm Beach County Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet sent a letter to Indian Trail asking for a permit to connect its pump station driveway to Grapeview Blvd. in The Acreage because it stood to lose its access that currently runs through Mecca Farms.
“Our residents were opposed to it, and the Indian Trail board was opposed to it,” Curry said. “The reasoning for it, first, was that it was providing a direct connection for any future Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, and the second reason was that these are tanker trucks that are carrying hazardous materials going to that plant.”
The current assumption is the trucks would go down Hall Blvd. from Northlake Blvd., where there have been several serious accidents. “If a tanker truck carrying chlorine is in an accident at that intersection, you’re talking about an evacuation,” Curry said. “It’s dangerous material.”
She noted that the county is now claiming an easement right from 1982 to get the driveway approved. “My position is that easement was abandoned,” Curry said. “There was a bridge there and it was removed, and you should not be coming through our community.”
County staff members said the proposed right of way for Seminole Pratt Whitney Road is tentative and that the cost would be high if the proposed right of way is followed, but the original easement straight north to the Beeline splits Corbett and Mecca, which the SFWMD wants to integrate into a flow way.
County Administrator Bob Weisman said he could direct staff not to pursue the Grapeview connection to the pump station driveway unless it proves absolutely necessary.
Attorney Lisa Interlandi with the Everglades Law Center supported the sale. “It has been a long time coming,” Interlandi said. “We would like to put the past of Mecca Farms behind us and move on to an era of Mecca Farms bringing restoration to the Loxahatchee River, helping the local ecosystem with flooding and just being a positive benefit and something that Palm Beach County can be really proud of.”
Martha Musgrove of the Florida Wildlife Federation said that her organization supports the sale. “We have advocated that for some time now,” Musgrove said. “We also support the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission’s proposed gun range.”
She said the shooting range, which was traded to Corbett in exchange for a SFWMD utility easement, will be in the northwest corner of Corbett near the Corbett Youth Camp and will be accessed by the same road.
“I hope the county sees fit to proceed with this transaction,” Musgrove said. “I think it’s good for the taxpayers, and then we’ll argue out some of the other issues between the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. There’s more steps to come, but the county doesn’t need to get into the middle of them.”
SFWMD Assistant Executive Director Ernie Barnett thanked commissioners for their support on the deal. “This property is phenomenally located for the Loxahatchee River,” Barnett said. “We’ve done some modeling analysis. We’re going to eliminate 100 percent of the exceedances of flows and levels, and achieve 91 percent of the restoration goals.”
Commissioner Patricia Taylor made a motion to proceed with the sale, with the condition for staff to avoid the use of Grapeview, which carried unanimously.
“This is a great day for the Loxahatchee River, a great day for the water management district and, I think, a great day for Palm Beach County,” Barnett said.