The Village of Palmetto Bay purchased two acres of land the last week of March for $2.94 million, partly to prevent a charter school from being built there and also to provide a location for a community center.
This followed negotiations with Wayne Rosen of Shores Development Company in August 2017. The deal was approved by the Village Council in December, by a 3-2 vote with Mayor Eugene Flinn and Councilmembers David Singer and Larissa Siegel Lara voting for the purchase and Vice Mayor John DuBois and Councilmember Karyn Cunningham voting against it.
The property is located at the virtual intersection of SW 97th Avenue and 178th Street, although there actually is no intersection there.
The vacant land is located between Village Hall and Palmetto Bay Park with no road currently existing to reach it. A road will have to be built to provide access to the community center.
The first presentation for the proposed center was given in November 2017.
All five members of the village council were asked what issues prompted them to vote the way they did.
Mayor Flinn was enthusiastic about the move.
“This was a great purchase,” Flinn said. “We have finally located a suitable place for our Community Center, an amenity that has been in our parks plans from our very first visioning session of the initial village council. Location has always been an issue.
“The price was driven by the two professional appraisals. The price we paid was under both professional appraisals. The price and amenities that we can share with Village Hall and Palmetto Bay Park will work to ensure that this community center will not increase taxes,” the mayor added. “A successful Community Center requires connection to a park for outdoor activities. Coral Reef Park does not have the parking. It is built out, bursting at the seams.
“Finally, the fact that three of the five voted to prevent a charter school is merely an added benefit for our community. We did not purchase the charter school location to stymie a charter school. We did, but the site is by far the best site available on its own merits, for all the reasons I described.”
Councilmember Singer said he led the way in contacting the owner of the property and had met with him with the village attorney and village manager.
“They had planned to build a charter school on two acres of the land and what Wayne Rosen was going to do was build apartments on three acres and had decided to sell the other two acres to a private company that builds charter schools,” Singer said.
“I don’t remember the numbers, but it was about 1,000 to 1,400 students. So the village decided to sue them because they don’t want a charter school in the downtown area because of the amount of traffic it would produce and they just didn’t feel it was the proper place for a charter school.
“So they denied the application, they went to court; the village actually lost the lawsuit, so there were definitely plans to build a charter school — I’ve seen the contract.”
Singer said the owners he talked to had spent about $100,000 on site surveys and architectural and everything else, which is typical with development.
“We’d been wanting a community center so I decided we could put the community center where the charter school is and we’d kill two birds with one stone,” Singer added. “Hopefully there’ll be a community center there. That’s what I’m pushing for. It still has to be put to a vote.”
He said the charter school company was Somerset Academy Inc., which is a non-profit charter management organization based in Texas and Florida.
Councilmember Cunningham had a different view of the purchase.
“I could not justify voting in favor of spending nearly $3 million of taxpayer dollars on the purchase of this piece of land,” Cunningham said. “Decisions of this magnitude should not be made in haste and without thorough research of the potential short and long term fiscal impact on our village and its residents.
“Now we are learning that the mayor and other council members want to build a mega-center. The renderings that have been presented include roof top swimming pools and multilevel parking structures, amongst many others uses. The community deserves to have the time to review all the options and to clearly understand the potential risks before these kinds of decisions are made.”
Vice Mayor DuBois explained why he voted against the purchase.
“The reason I voted against the land purchase was because I believed the use of the property was ill conceived in terms of not using the property for the use the residents desired,” he said. “My concern was that we were about to spend capital money for a project that was going to become a much larger financial commitment for the residents of Palmetto Bay without knowing what we were getting into. We seem to have a history of poor planning for capital projects.
“A great example was the million dollar hot dog stand which is still not in use 10 years later, and now we were being asked to spend $3 million on a property to build a $16 million mega center without a clear need or a designer,” DuBois added. “My fear is that we are going to be spending a million dollars a year on interest and another million on operating losses that our residents are going to have to bear in the form of substantially increased property taxes.”
Councilmember Lara did not respond in time by deadline.