PERICO ISLAND -- Last fall, Manatee County missed an opportunity to buy 37 acres that would have completed its ownership of the entire eastern shore of Perico Island.
Sold to local homebuilder Neal Communities while the county researched the land's history and title, the land nearly bisects the county's future Perico Preserve. It was property that county officials didn't want to see get away.
"We thought tying up this acquisition would be important," said Charlie Hunsicker, the county's director of parks and natural resources.
In this case, the county may not have lost out. Largely unbuildable, the land is expected to stay in its current state or even be improved if Pat Neal's company uses it to offset development elsewhere. It could even wind up as county-owned one day, if Neal decides to dedicate it to the Perico Preserve.
But the incident now has the county's property acquisition process under review and may change it to mirror how other prospective deals go down in the real estate market.
The 37-acre property was sold to Neal in late October for $56,300. On a per-acre basis, the land would likely have been a deal for the county. It paid $6 million in 2007 for 175 acres that makes up the bulk of the future preserve.
Hunsicker said the county did get the first opportunity to buy land when a real estate agent representing the owner, the James Wallace Trust, offered it to the county directly for its appraised value.
Rather than sign a purchase agreement upfront to secure the property while looking for any legal encumbrances, however, county officials simply expressed verbal interest before starting that research.
When the agent was contacted at the end of that process, he said the property had already been sold to Neal.
Hunsicker said Manatee County is examining how it approaches land deals so it can retain first option on a property during a due diligence process. Going forward, he said, it will likely adopt a standard market strategy of signing purchase agreements upfront with conditions.
As for the land on Perico, Hunsicker said he recently told Neal executive Michael Neal that the county still wants to own the 37 acres. Neal, he said, told him that the land is being held for use as a potential mitigation bank. Developers and builders use mitigation banks to make up for habitat and sensitive lands impacted or destroyed to make way for construction. The state must sign off on these deals.
When using mitigation banks to offset this, developers must either improve natural habitat on mitigation bank land, or pay another mitigation bank to do that on its land.
Leisa Weintraub, Neal's vice president of marketing, said the company has no current plans for the Perico acreage. But in recent months, company chairman Pat Neal has stated that his company owns mitigation credits that could be used in relation to four-home Harbor Sound development on the west side of the island. He gave no specific details about those credits or any mitigation bank to which they are attached.
Hunsicker said that if the land is used as a mitigation bank, the county will likely offer to take up the ongoing maintenance of the land and would welcome having the land deeded to it.
It is unlikely that the acreage could be used for any sort of construction, Hunsicker said, because it contains only about a tenth of an acre of buildable land.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.