EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was first published in 2013. As the City moves forward with the sale of Vero Electric, at least some of the Council’s attention will likely turn how to best make use of the riverfront property now occupied by the decommissioned power plant. Any discussion about development of the power plant site will almost surely include consideration of if and how to incorporate the existing waste water treatment plant site in any significant development. Now, Councilman Val Zudans is calling for referendums that would remove provisions in the City Charter that prevent the sale or lease of the power plant site and the waste water treatment site without voter approval. Anyone who thought the push to sell Vero Electric was not ultimately about making centralyl located public riverfront lands available for commercial development was missing the larger point.
BY MARK SCHUMANN Councilwoman Pilar Turner has pledged to “liberate” the power plant and wastewater treatment plant sites, presumably for some higher and better use. Turner recently reiterated her aversion to government investment in real estate, which begs the question of from whom and for what purpose she intends to “liberate” the waterfront. Within the city limits, the only remaining undeveloped riverfront land is publically owned. If there is to be further development on the city’s waterfront, say at the western base of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge, the land will first have to be “liberated” from the public – either by sale or long-term lease. Some who are counting on a provision in the City Charter to preserve the city’s remaining riverfront lands for public use doubt voters would ever approve of selling or leasing the land for private, commercial development. But consider these facts.
- Mayor Craig Fletcher has said that he would prefer to see the power plant site developed in some way other than a park, “perhaps a marina.” Fletcher interest, he said, is to see the land used in some way that will “generate revenue for the city.”
- Councilwoman Pilar Turner last week reiterated her aversion to the city investing in real estate. To receive her support, any development of the power plant site will presumably have to be privately funded.
- Fletcher, Turner and Councilwoman Tracy Carroll have all made statements suggesting they have given more than a little thought to the power plant site being developed as a marina.
- No less than $8 million of the value of Florida Power & Light’s offer for Vero Electric is going to pay to locate a new electrical substation off the current site. Though the Council never voted to establish a policy that all 17 acres of the power plant site must be cleared, City Manager Jim O’Connor insists those were his marching orders. It woud seem someone has a vision a 17-acres something, and its clearly not a riverfront park.
Currently, Vero Beach has in place building height restrictions and Charter provisions protecting the power plant and wastewater treatment plant sites for public use. But all of that could change, especially if voters are faced with limited choices. Given the Council’s unwillingness to hear so much as one word about raising Vero Beach’s tax rate, the public is going to have to accept cuts in services. The only other option for closing the budget gap that will result from the sale of the electric system will be for voters to approve aggressive proposals for increasing the city’s tax base – such as easing height restrictions and developing publicly owned riverfront property. Don’t be surprised if in the next few years the discussion shifts from divesting the city of its electric utility and water and sewer system to one of easing height restrictions in order to more effectively “liberate” the waterfront for commercial development.
When asked about the potential for a marina resort at the northwest base of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge, City Manager Jim O’Connor dismissed the ideas, arguing that no one would build such a project close to a heavily traveled bridge. Really? Just 60 miles to the south of Vero Beach sits the Loggerhead Marina and Resort, built at the northwest base of the bridge at Blue Heron Boulevard. Some suggest serious discussions about how to develop the power plant site are five to ten years away. That is probably correct, for the sale of Vero Electric likely won’t take place until late 2016,. At that point, FPL will have another three to four years to decommission the plant and turn the land back to the city. But does that mean private discussions are not already taking place? Hardly. Now is the time for city voters to tell the Council they never want to be put in the position of having to choose between easing building height restrictions or giving up the quality of municipal services that have helped to make Vero Beach one of the Florida’s most beautiful coastal communities.