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Florida Keys News
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Gastesi: Contract first, then plan

KEY LARGO -- The Monroe County Commission is expected to vote on a $5 million contract to purchase Rowell's Marina Tuesday, Sept. 17, during a meeting in Marathon.

Last week, Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi announced he and Rowell's owner Jim Cohen had agreed on the purchase price for the 8-acre property, but a majority of the commission said it wanted a long-term plan for the mile marker 104 marina/waterfront park before the county cuts a check.

"I only want to see this back before us if there is something accompanying it telling us what we are going to do with it," County Mayor George Neugent said. "We need a long-term plan. This could create some issues."

Gastesi said Monday that a plan this soon is unlikely.

"That's putting the cart before the horse," he told the Free Press. "First, we need to get the property."

The county recently solicited two appraisals for the property. Callaway and Price Inc. of West Palm Beach valued the property at $4.5 million. James Wilson's Appraisal Co. of Key West estimated the land's value to be $5 million.

Because the negotiated $5 million is $250,000 higher than the average of the two appraisals, the County Commission would need a 4-1 supermajority vote to approve the contract, Gastesi said.

The $5 million sale price is contingent upon a "clear title and environmental assessment," he said.

According to a draft of the contract obtained by the Free Press, Cohen says contaminated fuel tanks were removed from the property in 2005 following an environmental assessment review. As part of the agreement with the county, Cohen would be required to provide clean closure reports on all tanks removed.

After the contract is signed, the county would have 60 days to conduct an environmental review at its own expense. If any additional hazardous material is found on the property, the county would allow Cohen 120 days to clean it up at his cost. If that fails, the county may renegotiate or sever the contract. Both parties have set a closing deadline of Jan. 31.

The commission has expressed mixed feelings about the proposed purchase.

"I am just really hoping this goes through," Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said Monday.

But Commissioner Danny Kolhage has been staunchly opposed to the deal because he said he wants county dollars to focus on roads and bridges.

The bungled acquisition of the Hickory House in 2006 has left a bad taste in the mouths of several commissioners. The former restaurant and marina on Stock Island, which the county bought for $3.1 million, has since depreciated and fallen into disrepair.

Neugent recognizes that the Rowell's purchase project has community support and could be an asset to the county, but he said it is also a $5 million investment that needs a plan. Neugent told Gastesi last week that the commission is being asked to "take a leap of faith" on this project.

Commissioner Heather Carruthers agreed a plan is needed and requested that if the property is bought and developed, access should be free for Monroe County residents, but the county should charge out-of-county visitors to use it.

"What I have been saying for months is, where is the plan?" Carruthers asked.

Gastesi told the Free Press many different ideas are floating around about the property's potential use and that he needs more time to hear from the public. Improvements to the property, such as a small restaurant or other commercial uses, should be done through a public-private partnership that keeps the county clear of upfront investment, he added.

Until the park is developed, the property could remain as open space for which the county could charge groups that want to hold functions there, which would help generate revenue.

Murphy has lobbied to have the county's park and recreation board hold public meetings to obtain ideas on how the park should be developed.

tohara@keysnews.com

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