On the Mark: What is left of the ATV park?

MARK STRAIN

Every parcel of land has a value and all kinds of variables are factored into the valuations. When thinking about a purchase, if you compare land values set by professional appraisers to the asking price, hopefully what you pay will be no more than what the appraised value is…or even better it is less, which means you are walking away with what might be considered a good deal. Pretty straight forward.

It only becomes confusing when government is involved, either as the purchaser or as the seller. Recently the finalization of the local ATV (all-terrain vehicle) park was settled for a value that was supposed to represent what the land was worth that was to be supplied from a state agency to the county. Turns out the value Collier County is receiving as a payoff for the land involved is far below other land prices paid by Collier for rural properties.

With the lack of notice on the discussion of this item it is unclear why are we accepting so much less. Commissioners Georgia Hiller and Tom Henning voted against this unscheduled and inappropriate settlement proposal.

Pledging land for an ATV park started nearly a decade ago when the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) began assuming control of what is known as the “South Blocks” of Golden Gate Estates, basically that area south of Interstate 75 as you head east to Miami (aka, south of Alligator Alley). At the time there were thousands of large and small land owners in the area, some rustic home sites and a myriad of roads and canals. It was to be eventually developed in a manner typical to the huge Golden Gate subdivision.

That all changed when it was decided this land was more valuable as a restored watershed area to be used for recharging our aquifers as it had previously served before being dredged and drained for home sites. Under a massive buy-out program the government slowly began purchasing the area, including the road system.

Because the area was still sparsely settled, lots with improvements were few in number and the area was heavily used by ATV enthusiasts. Right or wrong, it became a popular spot for many residents to cut loose and have fun. In the buy-out of the county’s rights in this area and the closing of other areas frequented by ATV’s, the SFWMD committed to providing an alternative ATV land use area somewhere in Collier County. The road system in the south blocks was estimated as a $38 million initial value to Collier County with a depreciated value of $17 million.

Of course SFWMD would not acknowledge this value and simply said they would find contiguous ATV property of about 1 square mile (640 acres of land) to offset the loss ATV enthusiasts faced when the area was purchased for restoration (restoration and ATV uses are not the most compatible).

For the past 8 years neither SFWMD nor the county has been successful in finding an acceptable ATV site. Sites have been proposed, but each was rejected for its own set of problems. The value that was to be spent on a new site was estimated by some politicians as around $12.9 million which was considered to be a fair settlement for the county’s sale of their interests in the south blocks.

Last week under general comments, and unannounced on the agenda, the commission voted to settle the ATV land purchase with SFWMD for a mere $3 million (or just under $4,700 per acre).

The land purchased for ATV use needed to be primarily uplands and have minimal environmental value, a condition that also mirrors what is generally considered land with development potential and thus not the least expensive land. Yet by settling for this paltry amount, the county has accepted a value far less than the value the county has previously accepted as land values for such issues as rural road rights-of-way in agricultural areas ($50,000 per acre) and what was paid for the Pepper Ranch (average about $13,000 per acre with the lowest being preservation acreage of just under $10,000 per acre and the highest at $25,000 per acre) some of which was stripped of its development rights before we purchased it.

There are 195,000 acres of land in Collier County’s most rural areas. Of that, depending on whose numbers you use, there is somewhere up to 93,800 acres of actual agricultural with some of that in less intense uses then row crops. Most of this is owned by a dozen or so large land owners. Much of the 93,800 acres would be of minimal environmental value and some of it potentially useable as ATV sites.

The commissioners who voted for this ATV settlement are the same who have consistently voted to support the larger land owners in the rural area. You would think that acquiring a mere 640 acres of land from land owners who have consistently benefitted from the actions of Collier County would have been probable under such circumstances.

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