By MICHAEL PELTIER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The state will purchase 403 acres from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution under a $24.3 million deal approved today that will expand state protection of the Indian River Lagoon and bolster funding for the research facility now controlled by Florida Atlantic University.
Using money from a pair of financing sources, the governor and Florida Cabinet approved the purchase after presentations from state environmental officials and FAU president Frank Brogan, who said the infusion of cash will be pumped back into the institute’s research efforts, providing another steady stream of revenue for years to come.
Had the state not stepped in, Brogan said the institute was seeking private buyers to develop portions of the area to help the institute continue its work.
“It is a much better route to sell it to the people than to have it developed,” said Brogan, adding that both parties benefit. “Harbor Branch continues in perpetuity and the people have acquired a significant parcel of property that by all expert accounts is really beautiful, pristine and one of the last such parcels available on the Indian River Lagoon.”
Plans call for the state to purchase 135 acres for $18 million under the Florida Forever program, the state’s environmental land buying program. Included in the purchase is 300,000 square feet of warehouse, office and laboratory space.
Florida Communities Trust is purchasing the remaining 268 acres for $6.3 million. The acquisition will extend the county’s 880-acre Indrio Greenway and reconnect the tidal swamp to the lagoon system. Recreational improvements will include an observation platform, canoe launch, fishing pier and nature trails.
Mike Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said the purchase price is well below the $37 million appraised value in an area that would have undoubtedly been developed if the state hadn’t stepped in.
“The Board of Trustees will ensure that this property will be protected forever,” Sole said.
Founded in 1971, Harbor Branch is one of three U.S. organizations to run manned deep-sea submersible research vehicles along the ocean floor.
It merged with FAU in 2007 after falling on hard financial times following hurricanes and the founding family’s decision to stop paying between $4 million and $8 million a year to run it. University officials last week announced a $22 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Following the Cabinet decision Wednesday, the state will have purchased 4,012 acres of the 26,380 Indian River Lagoon system, about 15 percent of the total.