Edison Farms continues to be a breeding ground for controversy.
For six years, the 4,000-acre land east of Interstate 75, sandwiched between Bonita Beach and Corkscrew roads, has been at the center of multiple disputes. It had been part of a 2005 sly earmark proposing an interchange on the land from Coconut Road, a possible site to extend County Road 951, a campaign to build the Red Sox spring training stadium and, most recently, a possible acquisition for Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 program.
Now, the land owned by Edison Farms Trust and Agripartners is involved in a financial storm that includes foreclosure and a $300 million lawsuit.
Over the course of six months in 2009, the owners of Edison Farms defaulted on a $65 million loan, and in attempt to recover the damages, the lender, Investors Warranty of America, is seeking to foreclose on the land Lee County hopes to acquire.
In May, with an asking price of $170 million, Lee County Board of Commissioners balked at buying the environmentally sensitive land. The price is nearly double the amount of the other 23 parcels commissioners were considering for the conservation program, and nearly eight times the program’s yearly operating funds of about $22 million.
“The asking price, everyone realized, was too high,” said Commissioner Ray Judah. “Obviously, (the foreclosure) will be taken into consideration for negotiations.”
With a tight program budget, the county plans to pursue the best deal for the highest-rated parcel in the 15-year history of Conservation 20/20, which seeks to buy and preserve land for conservation purposes in Lee County. Edison Farms’ foreclosure adds a twist in the county’s acquisition of the land, and with the county currently appraising all 24 parcels up for purchase, proponents of Edison Farms believe the foreclosure may aid in its purchase.
The appraisal of the property will be the driving force of the sale, said Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a notable voice in the sea of supporters for the county’s purchase of Edison Farms.
“Either way, with the bank or the owner, you have a willing seller,” he said. “I guess it has the potential to complicate things, but it also has the potential to expedite.”
To ensure Lee County is able to acquire Edison Farms, the county is working with Doug Hattoway from The Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit which seeks to protect land and conservation efforts. With the programs limited funds, TPL plans to negotiate the purchase of the land and work as an interim buyer for Lee County.
“A property in foreclosure has more influence on purchase price than a property not in foreclosure,” Hattoway said. “It definitely affects your approach in going about determining what’s the right price.”
Attempts to reach representatives from Edison Farms Trust or Agripartners for comment were unsuccessful.
The Trust for Public Land has dealt with cases like Edison Farms before, and Hattoway noted many properties nationwide are going through duress — be it foreclosure or the owners facing bankruptcy — with a number of land purchases originally intended for what are now failed developments. Hattoway likened it to a residential foreclosure: Does the lender believe it can be a good owner and pick up the ball with the Conservation 20/20 program, or does it make more sense to do a short sale?
“It’s a large bit of land with big numbers, so it’ll get a bit of scrutiny to ensure it’s a great deal for the public,” he said. “The lender also wants to know what’s in their best interest.”
What’s in the lender’s best interest has yet to be seen, as Edison Farms and Agripartners recently filed a countersuit against the foreclosure. In the countersuit, those with Edison Farms Trust and Agripartners claim a faulty appraisal completed by the lender in 2008 led to the loss of an $8 million third-party investment for aggregate mining, impairing their ability to pay off the overdue loan. They’ve also got the paperwork to show for it, with the appraiser questioning acts done by the lender to lower the original appraisal of $136 million to a second appraisal of $124 million. Now Edison Farms and Agripartners is seeking $300 million in damages.
The latest development in the case has complicated the parcel even more and Chairman Frank Mann isn’t too enthusiastic about it.
“I think we could make a serious error and jeopardize the entire program if we rush into a purchase that has so many complications,” he said.
Mann, who was against the original asking price, said he’d be happy to walk away from Edison Farms for the time being until the owners, bankers and financiers can get their act together and settle.
“It would free up a lot of available dollars to take advantage of some of the other parcels, many of which look very favorable and are highly recommended by the 20/20 committee,” he said.
With a foreclosure and counter litigation weighing it down, Edison Farms’ future is unclear. What’s for certain are the environmental benefits the land has to offer: Ninety percent of the 4,000 acres are wetlands and it’s considered a primary panther and wood stork habitat zone. After surviving six years without any major development, supporters hope Edison Farms will be permanently protected under Conservation 20/20.
“It’s really a small miracle those wetlands have not been destroyed yet,” McElwaine said. “It really should remain a priority.”