City, County approve Dodgertown lease swap after marathon meeting

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The Indian River County Board of Commissioners and the Vero Beach City Council Tuesday agreed in principal to a lease swap paving the way for a cloverleaf of youth baseball fields said to be crucial to future development at Dodgertown.

The agreement, reached at a rare joint session of the two elected bodies, still needs to be advertised to allow for public comment and a second formal vote of approval. However, after four months of negotiations and previous public debate it is expected to pass without further delays.

The city expects to swap about 12 acres of land south of Holman Stadium to the county in exchange for about 11 acres of land west of Holman Stadium creating basically  a rectangular property running along 26th Street and 43rd Avenue.

Minor League Baseball, which is operating the facility as the Vero Beach Sports Village, says the proposed fields it wants the county to build are crucial to its economic success.

County Budget Director Jason Brown has estimated it will cost the county $3.1 million to build the cloverleaf, light two practice fields and build a soccer field as part of lease improvements between the county and Minor League Baseball.

The county had agreed when Minor League Baseball took over the facility to lease improvements including lighting four fields and converting two half fields to youth baseball diamonds. The improvements the county agreed to Tuesday will add $1.2 million to its previously planned lease improvements.

The city had already accepted the framework of the lease deal at a Dec. 21 Council meeting, but county commissioners had concern over parking and access issues. In order to expedite the negotiations the two bodies agreed to the joint session held in a meeting room at the County Commission government complex.

The framework of the deal which had been put together by staff negotiators, but at the meeting Tuesday it hit a snag when the county said at the last minute it needed more land to properly build the fields to little league and softball specifications.

However, the two sides discussed the issue during a lunch recess and were able to come up with a solution agreeable to both sides. At issue was the placement of a water retention pond to be used by both the county and the city.

In drawings that had been developed as a discussion point during the negotiations, the retention pond was solely on the land the county would gain. In order to accommodate larger youth fields than had originally been considered and to provide more buffer space, the city agreed to allow as much as one-third of the pond on its land.

 The exact site of the pond is yet to be determined, depending on the best use for allowing extra parking. Likely gone will be the current retention pond’s heart-shaped configuration that former owner Walter O’Malley was said to have built as a Valentine present for his wife.

“The Dodgers took my heart when they left, so I am not concerned about that,” said Council Member Craig Fletcher.

For Minor League Vice President Craig Callan it marked the end of a difficult stretch when what was thought to be a simple deal turned into a complex negotiation involving parking rights, access issues and the discovery that the Dodgers and another developer still owned the property off 26th Street with the two main access roads to the complex.

“It was great seeing the city and the county elected officials sitting in one room with give and take,” Callan said. “I think that is what Vero Beach and Indian River County is all about, not drawing lines, but working in the spirit of cooperation.”

Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, a supporter of the Minor League Baseball venture, has had a concern from the beginning about parking rights should big events again be held at Holman Stadium bringing in thousands of cars.

He has been against the proposed and now accepted solution of parking on practices fields, a solution the Dodgers used to employ during Spring Training games. His concern has been that should development occur, the county could lose parking access to vacant land owned by the city and a private developer that it currently is using for excess parking.

“It might not be a problem right now or in five years or 10 years,” he said. “My concern is what we could be left with is a $20 million parking lot. And down the road, if someone else wants to come in, what if there is no parking?”

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