County officials hope to buy three lots to begin extending Downtown Port Salerno west of FEC tracks

STUART – The Martin County Community Redevelopment Agency voted unanimously here June 22 to begin negotiations for the formal purchase of three lots totaling 0.65 acres in hopes of extending the walkable portion of Downtown Port Salerno west of the Florida East Coast railroad tracks.

Community Development Office Manager Susan Kores described the proposed purchase in the agenda item to Agency members, emphasizing that the desired property purchase coincides with the CRA vision of developing pedestrian-friendly communities.

“Port Salerno has a long-term vision of a livable, walkable community both east and west of the FEC Railroad,” she said. “This purchase would be the second important investment west of the tracks to support this vision, the first being the installation of sewer on Salerno Road. With these properties, the CRA would have another tool at its disposal to encourage new development and redevelopment, specifically in this area.”

Ms. Kores admitted her office had already made a contingency offer for $265,000 on the property but now wanted to renegotiate that amount after receiving the results of the property appraisal.

“It was delivered to us today, it came in at $160,000, and so that’s quite low from what we had originally looked at,” she explained. “Of course, we’re in our due diligence period [and] because it came in much lower, we’re looking at making a counter-offer. If you guys recall, the CRA generally uses the same benchmark the county does, which is we can offer 25 percent higher than the appraised [amount], other than in Rio, where we can offer more for our key properties.”

Ms. Kores then asked for the input of CRA members on how to proceed, emphasizing at that point she didn’t think the CRA needed to go much higher on the three lots.

“We’d look to offer them $165,000 or $170,000,” she said.

Chairwoman Cindy Hall then had a question, stressing that she had no first-hand knowledge of how real estate transactions occur.

“Is it a norm to come in a percentage amount above appraisal, especially since there’s nothing on the properties and it’s vacant land?” she asked.

“The fact is that it’s vacant actually is good for us because we don’t have to deal with anything after purchase,” Ms. Kores responded. “It usually seems what we do is offer 10 to 15 percent more in general. I’m not a real estate person either, but that seemed to be something that made sense. I mean, they’re great properties.”

Agency Member Michael Readling then wondered what the properties would be zoned after purchase since the county is currently in the process of evaluating and approving new land development regulations for the Port Salerno Community Redevelopment Area. The Community Development manager explained that they would all fall under the new CRA Center designation and be zoned “COR [Commercial/Office/Retail], which gives them the most amount of flexibility.”

“The location of them is really amazingly great for us because they’re right across the street from a very large vacant property next to commercial [property] on the west side of the tracks,” she said as part of her explanation. “We had talked about this at the Port Salerno [Neighborhood Action Committee] meeting last week. because they recommended approval to buy the properties, one of the reasons being that west of the tracks is really where the NAC members wanted us to be focusing. It’s kind of ripe for it being [it’s] the other part of the town center of Salerno and not just the Pocket. So, it’s a good purchase in terms of having some kind of incentive or leverage to assist developers when they come.”

Agency Member Saadia Tsaftarides then wondered if the CRA and the county were not already bound by the current offer.

“You’re already in the contract for $265,000,” she said.

Ms. Kores, however, highlighted the fact that the property appraisal was ordered after the contract, which is unlike most residential real estate transactions that occur after the appraisal and lock a buyer in through his or her earnest money deposit.

“No, it’s a contingency, so we’re in the due diligence period, which means we’re holding it,” she replied. “Then we can come back once we do the appraisal or once we did an environmental [study] and say hey, there’s a problem. We can either say forget it or offer something else.”

“That’s a good thing,” Ms. Tsaftarides responded.

“My lawyer would not allow me to do anything else,” Ms. Kores quipped, referring to Assistant County Attorney Elizabeth Lanahan.

The latter then opined on the issue.

“Also, the contract is not fully approved because this Board has to approve it before it’s a valid contract,” Ms. Lanahan said.

Project Manager Joshua Mills then chimed in, emphasizing the pivotal nature of the land in question.

“It’s definitely a key property for what we want to do in that area, and as Susan stated, it’s on the west side of the tracks,” he said. “Given what the outcome of Brightline will be, it will essentially bisect Port Salerno where you’re going to have an east side and a west side much like Delray Beach with Atlantic Avenue. There are other individuals that are owners right there that have plans to also develop the area. I don’t want to say their name out of respect for them until they move forward. They’re waiting for the LDR changes, so that whole area is going to explode fairly soon here.”

Ms. Kores then told the Board that most property owners were more willing to negotiate after seeing the results of a lower property appraisal, and Chairwoman Hall said she would rather the CRA not just throw out any particular amount to offer for the land.

“My personal opinion is to let staff do their jobs,” she said. “They’re better at it than we are, and have them come back with a renegotiated contract that we can approve that’s a more reasonable amount.”

Agency Member Michael Banas then made the motion to approve the property negotiations with a 25 percent cap over the appraised value, which was seconded by Agency Member Readling and passed unanimously.

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