PALMETTO -- A vacant parcel in Palmetto that has stood empty for decades is going to the dogs -- but in a good way.
It's a snapshot image of old Florida with moss-covered trees providing a canopy atop a clear, meandering creek (actually a stormwater outflow) winding down toward the Manatee River.
Rust-colored railroad tracks border it to the east near Fifth Street West as though patiently awaiting the appearance of the young group of friends from the Hollywood classic, "Stand by Me," en route to their rather unusual destination.
It's an ideal piece of property that almost screams out for public use, which was the initial thinking when the city purchased the 2.1 acres for $90,000 in 1998 from Billie Edenfield, a former Realtor for CSX Railroad who was privy to surplus railroad properties and purchased some of them for personal investments.
The city almost balked at buying the land once used as a storage area for CSX railroad ties, which are soaked in creosote and create higher than normal levels of arsenic in the ground.
Palmetto's environmental concerns following the purchase were confirmed, and the property has stood vacant since.
Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said with changing environmental standards, the city has been aware that the
property could be more easily used as long as there isn't a major excavation.
"It's just time to make better use of this property," said Bryant, who noted the city is hiring a company that specializes in working with the Environmental Protection Agency "to do mitigation because the EPA will want more intensive studies."
The plan is to keep the property for public use and transform it into a city dog park.
Preliminary testing in 2010 showed higher than normal levels of arsenic in the ground, but Public Works Director Alan Tusing said, "It's not real bad," noting arsenic also is produced naturally and just about everyone is exposed at some point.
But negotiating through the environmental process for a piece of property considered to be a brownfield project -- meaning there are environmental issues -- will still take time. Community Redevelopment Agency Director Jeff Burton said the city is very early in the process to transform the property, and it could take as many as five years before the first dog romps under the shade trees.
Burton said the city also is seeking to trade some property with the West Coast Tomato packing plant, across Fifth Street West from the property. Burton said initial discussions have been favorable to trade the north half of city property for a continuation piece of property to the west owned by the tomato company.
The piece of property the city wants to trade lacks tree cover, and the tomato company's property is more visually pleasing. The concept includes the idea for the tomato company to pave over the north half of the property -- best use allowable practices for a brownfield property -- for more employee parking, while the city's property gain could be enhanced with landscaping to provide a better visual and audio buffer for residents near the packing plant.
"The city has always wanted to do something with this property, but we've just never sat down and tried to put together a real plan for it, until now," said Burton. "Part of the reason for that is environmental expertise is a profession all by itself, and we don't have that level of expertise on staff."
The city is looking to hire Cardno TBE out of Clearwater, a brownfield consulting service, to begin a supplemental site assessment at an estimated cost of $51,000.
Once the study is completed and the EPA mitigation process is concluded, the city can proceed with the proposed dog park concept and possible land trade with the packing plant.
While much remains to do to determine the property's use, city officials are confident in the dog park concept.
"It's like everything else we do," said Burton. "If we are going to do a dog park, we are going to do the best dog park around."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.