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Jury verdict could foil port coal site plan

Price tag was more than three times what authority considered


By DAVID HUNT, The Times-Union


A big price tag might end the big plans Jacksonville Port Authority had for a 60-acre plot north of Talleyrand Marine Terminal.

Maybe it could be a coal terminal, generating enough revenue to pay for a massive dredging project. Maybe it could be a new container terminal for Talleyrand mainstay Hamburg Sud.

But at $67.4 million, the price tag might make both options impossible.

Last week, a jury determined that's what the authority would have to pay to acquire the land from Ft. Myers-based Keystone Coal Co. Authority officials say the price is too high and they might have to pass.

In 2006, a separate court proceeding allowed the authority to take the 60 acres through eminent domain. Over the past two weeks, jurors have reviewed evidence and listened to arguments to determine compensation.

The process is known as a "slow take," under which the authority can pay the price or walk away. Authority officials have 20 days to make a decision.

Executive Director Rick Ferrin said he was surprised at the verdict, considering appraisals he'd commissioned on the property came in under $20 million - and Keystone had paid only $8 million for the property about three years ago.

"We're examining our options," Ferrin said.

Keystone lawyer Andrew Brigham said the difference in price happened because his client, Keystone President Tom Scholl, saw value in the land that competitors did not. He said kilns already standing on the property could have been used to process limestone in addition to Scholl's coal business.

"It's like if you went to a garage sale and found a painting for $10 then realized it was a Picasso," Brigham said. "If the city wanted to take it from you to put it in a gallery, you wouldn't just let it go for $10."

The jury's valuation ruling may have ended a dispute over the land, which became bitter as Scholl discovered that authority officials planned to force out his coal operation to set up one of their own.

Ferrin said a coal terminal might have earned the authority millions annually, money that could be put toward a project to deepen the shipping channel. But last year, Gov. Charlie Crist set limitations on the amount of energy the state should be getting from coal in the future. That in mind, Ferrin said a coal terminal didn't seem as wise of a use for the property.

Brigham said he was satisfied that the jury protected Scholl's business interests, regardless of whether the authority moves forward with the purchase.

Carol Saviak, executive director for the Orlando-based Coalition of Property Rights, said the verdict is one of the largest she's seen in Florida. And that's a victory for property owners.

"I think it sends a clear message that while government in Florida can still take property, the juries will watch details very, very closely," she said.

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Revised: February 10, 2010 .

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