You could call Jeff Wittman an eternal optimist.
The Hobe Sound resident never has stopped believing that a 46-acre chunk of Florida scrub wilderness between U.S. 1 and Alternate A1A, south of Bridge Road, should belong to the people forever.
For almost a decade, the land has been the prize in a tug of war involving its wealthy owner, land developers, Jupiter Island, Martin County and Florida land preservation agencies.
The property, known as Mount Olympia Preserve, includes rolling hills with views of the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic. Scrub jays, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes live among the oaks, sand pines and wild rosemary. The four-petal paw paw, a rare plant that grows only in Martin and Palm Beach counties, thrives here. Well fields on the land supply drinking water for 9,000 Hobe Sound and Jupiter Island residents.
Archeologists have found pottery pieces and other remnants of the Ais tribe on part of one of the largest Native American mounds in Florida.
A few years ago, a developer proposed building 83 homes on the land, but that plan failed.
In 2006, owner Edward “Ted” Hamm, an heir to the Hamm’s beer fortune, almost agreed to sell the land. But the deal died when Hamm, a Jupiter Island resident, insisted on a clause saying his family could have the land back if the county failed to turn it into a preserve.
At one point, Wittman gathered letters to state officials from 450 residents to win a state grant to buy the property.
During the past several years, attempts to win the land for public ownership have gotten close but never closed – chiefly because of contentious dealings with Hamm.
Last year, the county and the town of Jupiter Island worked on a deal that included the county buying almost 27 acres for $1.7 million, with Mr. Hamm donating more than 18 acres of well fields to Jupiter Island at closing. The well-field land would be open for wildlife and residents to use.
But the county couldn’t settle details with Hamm and the deal wasn’t completed.
So it was surprising to hear Wittman propose another run at buying the property during a legislative delegation meeting in September.
Wittman said he talked with Republican Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart after the meeting and thinks a new plan to buy the land with a combination of money from Florida Communities Trust and from Amendment 1 money may be possible.
Florida voters overwhelmingly approved using a portion of money from documentary stamp taxes levied in home sales to buy conservation lands and waters. But in 2014, lawmakers ignored the voter mandate and spent money on such things as operating expenses for the Department of Environmental Protection. A pending lawsuit seeks to force legislators to spend the money as voters directed.
So Wittman has asked Martin County commissioners for a resolution supporting purchase of the Hamm property. Commissioner Sarah Heard said she’ll bring it up.
Martin County Administrator Taryn Kryzda said the county “has not taken any specific action asking staff to proceed” with efforts to buy the land. But if Negron persuades fellow lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money, the county wouldn’t have to pay.
Wittman remains optimistic. He said Negron promises to seek state money from Amendment 1 funding. A Negron aide confirms “he’s working on it.”
Buying the land to save forever always has been and remains a worthy goal. This time, that means more than just making a deal that Hamm will approve.
Prying Amendment 1 money from the tightly clenched fists of lawmakers determined to spend it on anything but land will be a tough job.
If Negron manages that, he’s a miracle worker.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida.