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Eco Discovery Park appears poised to close on May 1 after the James City County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to defer making a decision about selling the county-owned land where it is based.
The nonprofit park offered $500,000 — a mixture of $250,000 cash and $250,000 in money raised by the sale of tax credits and conservation easements — to buy the land known as the Jamestown Yacht Basin. The park says it needs to own the approximately 37-acre county-owned site near Jamestown Settlement to stay open.
But in the days before Tuesday’s meeting, two other parties stepped forward with offers: Real estate investor John A. Franklin offered $650,000 cash without specifying any plans for the property and Swan Landing at Jamestown LLC, offered $825,000 cash and submitted plans to build three restaurants, 15,000 square feet of commercial space and 65 to 70 townhouses.
The desire to fully vet those offers caused the supervisors to defer voting on a sale to May 26, nearly four weeks after Eco Discovery Park is supposed to have vacated the yacht basin, which it has been leasing from the county since the beginning of 2012.
Eco Discovery Park President Steve Rose said he will bring the deferral to the park’s board of directors, and that the decision to keep the $500,000 offer on the table resides with that group. But for the time being, he will proceed with plans to vacate the property by the end of April.
Supervisor Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse) suggested a 90-day, rent-free extension of the lease to Rose so the park would not have to close while county staff further investigated the other two proposals, but Rose said that would require him to hire new staff members for the summer tourist season only to be in a position where he might have to let them all go if a deal with the county did not work out.
Kennedy, who also suggested the deferral, said he wanted time to consider the financials for the other two proposals before making a decision. He also wants to ensure the funding structure for the $250,000 of tax credits and conservation easements was adequate and in place.
“I want to look at financials before I purchase,” he said.
Supervisor Mary Jones (Berkeley) agreed, noting the need to take an in-depth look at each of the proposals before making a final decision.
Supervisor John McGlennon (Roberts) said that if too much time passed, the county could end up in a situation where there are no buyers left at the table. He said Eco Discovery Park went through the county’s process for making an offer for the land, noting it was the only party to respond to a request for proposal issued last year.
At that time, the park offered $250,000 for the land. That offer was rejected by the board because the land was assessed to be worth $3.54 million, causing the park to increase its offer to $500,000.
“Nobody has come close to $3.5 million,” McGlennon said. “We’re talking about differences of a relatively small nature. The part of this that does concern me that we haven’t talked about is the fairness to one person we had a relationship with who went through the process as we specified it, and we haven’t given them an answer.”
McGlennon and Supervisor Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) said they have heard from many citizens about the importance of Eco Discovery Park in their lives. Several citizens turned up in support of the park at Tuesday’s meeting, using a scheduled public hearing about the sale to share anecdotes about how the park has positively affected their lives.
Six of the eight speakers at the hearing urged the supervisors to sell the land to the park. The other two were opposed to selling the land to the park, urging the board to try to get a better value. Jones and Kennedy agreed with that point, both saying the county needs to do a better job of finding buyers.
In the time between now and May 26, Rose will go back to his board of directors while county staff will research the other two proposals that have come forward. Kennedy, Onizuk and McGlennon all came out against the proposal to build townhouses, commercial buildings and restaurants on the land.
That proposal, from Swan Landing at Jamestown LLC, would preserve the marina while adding the other developments.
A conceptual plan submitted to the county outlining the project says developer WVS Companies has built two other marina-centered developments: Rocketts Landing in the Richmond area and Belmont Bay in Northern Virginia.
At the yacht basin, it would build 65 to 70 “high end town homes” which would sell for between $400,000 and $600,000. The commercial area, located along the water front, would be built for 1,000- to 3,000-square-foot businesses like small retailers or professional offices. The three restaurants would be in separate buildings also located along the water.
Onizuk and McGlennon took issue with that level of development in the Jamestown area, while Kennedy said it was not worth it for $825,000. Jones and Supervisor Michael Hipple (Powhatan) did not state their thoughts about the Swan Landing at Jamestown proposal.
Few details were available about the other proposal. Under that plan, real estate investor John A. Franklin would pay $650,000 to buy the yacht basin. A memorandum from Interim County Attorney Adam Kinsman to the supervisors said Franklin has “no firm plans” for the property and that he would lease it out to businesses.
The county purchased the yacht basin along with nearby land along the James River in 2006 for $12.5 million, though grant funding accounted for $2.9 million of that sum. Some of the land was later sold to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Virginia Department of Transportation for $4.5 million.