Airport Director’s plans for Dodger Pines land deal put on ice

VERO BEACH — With vacancy rates ranging from 10 to 30 percent in the industrial corridor of 43rd Avenue and developers struggling to find tenants, the Vero Beach City Council voted Tuesday to hold off on plans to purchase 88 acres west of the airport to develop another industrial park.

Several property owners spoke out against the project, which was proposed by Airport Manager Eric Menger as a potential use for $1.6 million in grant funding available from the Florida Department of Transportion. Menger said the project would help the airport copntinue to pay for itself, so its operations do not need to be paid for through property taxes.

“It’s an enterprise zone, the whole idea is to keep the self-sufficiency,” Menger said.

Among those opposed were local developers Jeff Thompson, of Vero Millworks, and Toby Hill, of The Hill Group.

“This is an inappropriate role of government,” Hill said. “It’s not government’s role to get into development. You would be competing head to head with private enterprise.”

Hill is the chair of the Indian River Tea Party group.

“I really don’t feel that we need to spend taxpayer dollars — and even if it’s state funds, it’s still coming from us,” Thompson said, adding that he didn’t feel that the city should take the property off the tax rolls.

Menger said the property currently nets about $5,200 annually in property taxes. The property was designed to support a 750-home development to be called Heritage Acres but never took off because of the real estate bust and airport noise.

Thompson reminded the council that there is a great deal of vacant space right now all over the county.

Councilman Ken Daige agreed.

“We need to be mindful to protect our local businesses,” said Daige. “We have a lot of what we call open inventory in this county and what we’d be going to do is adding to it.”

Daige, who said he would vote “no” down the line on this project, refreshed the council’s memory that just a couple of months ago, a developer had to break a long-term lease on commercial-industrial property at the airport because he could not find and keep tenants in the buildings.

“I don’t have the pockets to compete against the city or against the county,” Thompson said. “It’s not right for me to compete against my own tax dollars. I can’t support this at all, whether it’s staff money, or at all moving forward.”

First steps of the effort, which are now on hold, would have been to express interest to the owners of the property and obtain an appraisal to prepare a purchase agreement.

Menger said it would cost about $3,000 or $4,000 to complete the initial steps.

After that, Menger said paperwork would need to be filed with FDOT to transfer the grant funds to the 88-acre project.

He also said that if the city did not pursue a purchase, that it would not lose the FDOT grant money. The city had planned to use the money to construct an operations center for the airport and the funds could still be applied to that project.

Vice Mayor Sabin Abell voiced support for moving forward with Menger’s plan, saying he thought it was worth at least looking into the purchase.

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