By Joe Capozzi
Agreeing they probably are paying more than the land is worth, town commissioners voted to spend $1.5 million to preserve 9 acres in a mangrove-filled lagoon north of Town Hall.
“Even if we might be overpaying for this piece, it’s a good thing for the town,’’ Commissioner Martin Wiescholek said at an April 12 commission meeting. “It’s our future and it sets the right tone for Ocean Ridge to say we are environmentally oriented and we want to make sure this town stays the way it is today.’’
A week earlier, the town was under contract to buy the land for nearly $2 million from the William Priest Family Trust, a deal contingent on two appraisals.
But commissioners saw the appraisals for the first time just hours before they were scheduled to consider the purchase for the first time at their regular meeting April 4. One appraisal was for $1.4 million, the other $800,000, for an average of $1.1 million that prompted commissioners to postpone a vote and direct the town manager to renegotiate with the owner over the next week.
Those negotiations settled on $1.5 million, which the commission unanimously approved at a special meeting April 12, just days before the purchase contract was set to expire.
“I hate to see us spending this kind of money. I think we probably are overpaying by $300,000 to $400,000, but it’s the right thing to do,’’ said Commissioner Steve Coz, who led the call to renegotiate the price.
“If a developer goes in there and develops property, we will then as a town get sued for not providing proper drainage for houses on this island.’’
The 9-acre parcel borders a 3.3-acre sliver to the east owned by Waterfront ICW Properties, a company that’s been fighting the town and nearby condos in court over its plans to build a road and residential homes in the lagoon.
Town officials were careful to avoid mentioning those legal battles in detail. Instead, Town Manager Tracey Stevens promoted plans to rezone the land to conservation/preservation from its current residential use as part of a long-term strategy to possibly open the area for recreation.
Palm Beach County and Spanish Creek LLC have already applied to the town for the same zoning change on land they own immediately south and east of the 9 acres the town bought from the William Priest Family Trust.
The $1.5 million to purchase the land was taken from the town’s reserves, reducing the emergency budget to $5.8 million. Town officials hope to recoup some or all of that $1.5 million by applying for grants and seeking assistance from entities such as The Nature Conservancy.
“With the mitigation rights that could potentially exist on that property and could potentially be sold off, I think we have an actual opportunity of recouping our money,’’ said Wiescholek.
Most of the 25 residents who attended the April 4 meeting to voice support for the purchase returned April 12 to cheer and clap when the commission approved the purchase.
“I’d be willing to give up a few bucks for it,’’ said former Commissioner Terry Brown. “We need to move forward and not squander any opportunity to demonstrate that we’re a government that can do something important for the people and protect our natural areas.’’
In other business:
• In a commission reorganization vote April 4, Kristine de Haseth and Susan Hurlburt swapped positions. Hurlburt was voted mayor and de Haseth was voted vice mayor.
• The commission endorsed the voluntary “Combat Automobile Theft” program. Participating residents will each apply a special reflective sticker to the back of their car. The stickers give Ocean Ridge police officers consent to make traffic stops between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to make sure the vehicle is not stolen.
“Once the officer turns the lights on and attempts to pull the vehicle over, if the vehicle stops we know it’s a resident. If the vehicle takes off, we know it’s stolen,’’ Chief Richard Jones said. “It’s just one more method to give us the opportunity to reduce crime.’’
• Commissioners voted to spend $14,000 to remove an abandoned sailboat that washed ashore in March after being damaged in a storm.