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Schools to buy land despite high cost

They lamented the soaring land values in Hernando County, but ultimately School Board members resigned themselves to the reality that prices aren't going to get any cheaper.

Tuesday night, the board voted 4-1 to buy 30 acres of land on Northcliffe Boulevard to house a K-8 or middle school. The price tag: $33,000 per acre, significantly higher than the appraised value of the land.

"The fact is, we need the property," Vice Chairman Jim Malcolm said.

The final offer, made by seller Loren Hamm, was a slightly less expensive deal than the board first approved. The agreed price initially was $35,000 an acre, but that was before two appraisals put the land's value at $20,000 and $25,000 an acre, respectively.

The appraisals put the board in a pickle. They needed the land to proceed with school construction plans for the burgeoning county. Already, the target date to open this school _ August 2006 _ likely will have to be delayed because the purchasing process has taken longer than expected, said Heather Martin, director of planning for the school district.

But the board risked getting criticized by residents who might view the purchase as a waste of taxpayer money. Hamm refused to drop his price any lower.

Board members worked through the conundrum during a workshop and their regular meeting Tuesday. From the outset, no one seemed interested in starting over the search.

"We could end up with a less desirable piece of property," Malcolm said.

Board members questioned the accuracy of the appraisals, noting they registered at much lower values than similar land currently on the market. In some parts of the county, half-acre parcels are selling for $35,000 and more, said board member John Druzbick.

"It sounds nice that we could purchase that property for $25,000 per acre, but I think it's totally unrealistic," he said. "It is going to get even more and more difficult to find land at a decent price."

Board member Gail David said she would feel comfortable spending the asking price on the Northcliffe property only if the board committed to making the future facility a neighborhood school. That means it would be filled by students in the surrounding neighborhood, saving the district on transportation costs.

The designation also would ward off a potentially expensive precedent of landowners' assuming the board would pay more for land than the appraised value, David said.

"I do believe that that would be an excellent rationale for having to pay more per acre for land that is in high demand," she said.

Her colleagues weren't willing to lock themselves into the neighborhood school concept. David was the only member to vote against the purchase, which required a supermajority of four votes to pass.

Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said she would approve the purchase this time. However, she suggested the board should start buying smaller parcels of property and build up in the future to cope with skyrocketing land prices.

"I don't think we need 30 acres," she said. But "we do need property in that area."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 848-1432 or