April 26, 2018

Babcock Ranch offers Lee County 2,250 acres valued at $23.6M

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Bill Smith, BSMITH@NEWS-PRESS.COMPublished 6:26 p.m. ET April 24, 2018 | Updated 6:58 p.m. ET April 24, 2018

Making good on promises made at a series of community meetings, the developer of Babcock Ranch has offered to sell 2,250 coveted acres to Lee County’s 20/20 program.
Kitson and Partners LLC has filed an application to sell the land to the county preservation program. It is owned by the company’s Babcock Property Holdings subsidiary.
Babcock Ranch developer Syd Kitson told Lee County audiences during a series of community meetings last year that the site would be offered to the county once approval was in hand for the 4,157 acres of Babcock ranch located in the county.

County Commissioners granted Kitson the comprehensive plan and zoning changes needed to build the Lee County portion of Babcock Ranch at a meeting several weeks ago.
Kitson Senior Vice President Gary Nelson has projected the value of the site at $10,500 per acre. At that price, the parcel would total $23,625,000. However, county procedures for a large land acquisition require multiple appraisals to be conducted.

Last year’s $42.4 million purchase of the Edison Farms property east of Interstate 75 was based on three appraisals.
The property is adjacent to the county-owned Bob Janes Preserve, which consists of 5,620.37 acres acquired for $41.5 million nearly 12 years ago.
The cost per acre for the Janes Preserve was $7,390.72. At that price, the 2,250 Babcock Ranch acres offered to the county would cost about $16.6 million.
The land offered to the 20/20 program includes 497 acres on which development has been approved.
Babcock’s offer is contingent on the county agreeing to allow the 1,630 units that could have been built on a slice of the property to be placed on another part of the Babcock Ranch property.

“There would be no homes on the eastern-most pods that were in the development application, instead those units, that density, would move to the western portion of the site,” said Tina Matte, a spokeswoman for Babcock Ranch.
In setting a value for the property, Kitson has offered to value the land based on what it is worth without the development entitlement Babcock Ranch was granted by the county.
Essentially, the land is being offered to the county at a discount.

“This is entitled land, and entitled land has a higher value.” Matte said. “Syd felt that by using that raw land price rather than an entitled land price, it would be more fair to the county and to the 20/20 program.”
The county’s 20/20 fund has about $42 million in the bank, but that includes funding for maintenance and improvements to the existing preservation land.
Kitson & Partners bought the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch in 2006 and later sold 73,000 acres to the state for preservation.
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, who has voted against the Babcock Ranch development in his district at every opportunity, takes a positive look at acquiring the conservation property.
For one thing, Mann said, the land is adjacent to the Bob Janes Preserve, a 5,620-acre property that he has commended as a water recharge and wildlife habitat area. For another, he notes that it makes the preserve accessible to North Fort Myers.

“I was always hopeful that we would someday add it because it is immediately adjacent to the Bob Janes Preserve,” Mann said. “This would just expand the Bob Janes right up against North River Road in North Fort Myers.”
The parcel is the same property on which Kitson and the county attempted to negotiate a 20/20 sale more than a decade ago. That deal fell apart because appraisals were based on comparable sales that did not reflect the drop in real estate values in the county after the start of the Great Recession.

Nelson said that a recent sale of 430 acres to Florida Power & Light for $10,800 justifies the $10,500 per acre valuation for the Babcock property.
In the run-up to the county commission vote to approve the project, Kitson held meetings and was repeatedly asked about the 20/20 donation.
“We did a lot of public outreach, in Alva, in North Olga and in Bayshore and at every single one of those meetings at least one person said ‘are you going to offer those eastern pods to 20/20,'” Matte said. “Syd said ‘I will when we get through this process’ so this is really him keeping a promise that he made to the neighbors.”

The chair of eYes on 20/20, a citizens group created to support the conservation program, said it would be a good addition.
“We have always believed that is an important parcel, it would be great if the county could get its hands on it,” said eYes on 20/20’s Barbara Manzo. “It’s a valuable piece of property, we would support that purchase, absolutely.”

The offer to negotiate the sale of the property comes as commissioners grapple with future funding for the 20/20 program.
The 20/20 fund is supposed to be maintained at $40 million in reserves. A big purchase such as the Babcock parcel could make money tight for maintenance and buying additional property.
Commissioner Larry Kiker has suggested keeping a running balance of $40 million plus a 20 percent overage in the fund.
Renewed funding for the program depends on the largess of commissioners, who are in the midst of discussions about how, when and by how much to replenish the 20/20 account. County staff is expected to make a recommendation at a commission work session next month.

The county has committees working on the 20/20 program that have had a difficult time making a quorum over the past year.
It also still needs to be reviewed by county staff. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Betsy Clayton, county spokeswoman.
The April meeting of the Conservation 20/20 Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee, which evaluates potential sites, was canceled when a quorum could not be reached. Meetings have been repeatedly canceled over the past year.

Commissioners appoint members to the committee, which has significant membership from both developers and conservationists.
Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass recently speculated that the county has “almost exhausted” potential 20/20 sites.
An 84 percent majority of county voters reaffirmed the program last year, 20 years after a nonbinding referendum helped launched the program, which has made 130 purchases, setting aside 29,000 acres for conservation.