Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

State Auditors Raise Questions on $28 Million City Land Deal Lack of Records in Preservation Talks Criticized

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

State Auditors Raise Questions on $28 Million City Land Deal Lack of Records in Preservation Talks Criticized

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Patterson, Times-Union staff writer

Florida conservation officials didn't do enough research before helping Jacksonville with a $28 million deal to preserve undeveloped land along Butler Boulevard, state auditors have concluded.

The Auditor General's Office said it can't tell whether the money was spent wisely because there's no record of how agents working for the city negotiated the price.

The state Department of Environmental Protection spent $18.3 million in late 2000 to preserve 1,488 acres owned by George Hodges Jr. and his wife, Kernan. The city and the St. Johns River Water Management District each paid another $4.8 million.

Mayor John Delaney defended the price and the project, which is a centerpiece of his land-buying Preservation Project. City officials said keeping detailed negotiation records would build a road map for other landowners to haggle for higher prices.

"Creating a public record trail that shows how you got there makes it impossible to negotiate the next deal," said Mark Middlebrook, the Preservation Project's executive director.

About 21,000 acres -- 33 square miles -- have been preserved in Duval County since the project was launched three years ago.

The Hodges property, in an area called Cedar Swamp, is in one of the city's top growth corridors. The couple sold their right to develop the land but will own the property the rest of their lives. After their deaths, the state will buy the land for $1.

The deal was one of a handful of conservation easements that auditors evaluated in a report released last week.

The report said the Hodges deal was different from most easements, because the government will eventually own the land and because the owners were paid nearly the full value of the land. That high price may have been justified, but fundamentally the state paid millions "without documented assurance that . . . the terms of the conservation easement were negotiated as favorably as possible," the report said.

The report has no effect on the Hodges deal, but DEP did promise the auditors it would require more records from third-party negotiators in the future. …

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