PALM BEACH GARDENS —
Remember the Vavrus Ranch?
Nearly a decade ago, the Palm Beach Gardens property west of Florida’s Turnpike was practically a household name when it became part of a deal to lure Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County.
Scripps would be built on nearby Mecca Farms, an orange grove, and Vavrus would become the site of thousands of homes next door.
Politicking, controversy and heavy lobbying led Scripps to Jupiter. Mecca Farms became a county-owned albatross.
And plans for development of the 4,763-acre acre Vavrus Ranch died.
But now the ranch is under contract for sale, and a Coral Gables-based group called Landstar is serious about doing something big with the site.
The deal, which is expected to close within 90 days, could result in development of the largest piece of land in an incorporated city in Palm Beach County.
It also could revive concerns about land development pushing farther west.
Just last week, the county commission approved construction of a warehouse-size store on 64 undeveloped acres near the northwest corner of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road and Southern Boulevard. Some residents of the nearby Acreage oppose the move, fearing encroachment of urban living into their rural lifestyle.
Natalie Crowley, director of planning and zoning for the city of Palm Beach Gardens, confirmed last week that during the past few weeks, representatives from Landstar have been in to talk about the Vavrus land and the zoning changes that would need to take place to develop the agriculture and rural residential property into something else.
She said an application has not yet been submitted, and Landstar still is doing its due diligence on the land. But she noted that Landstar representatives have been talking with city council members about what the city would like to see on the land. Crowley said she is not aware of any specific ideas, such as commercial or residential use.
Word is that Landstar is very careful to plan in accordance with a city’s wishes. In 2002, Landstar became a major developer in Homestead when it launched Waterstone, a 2,274 home community. Other Landstar projects in Homestead would later add 2,555 homes.
The company’s website says Landstar is acquiring, approving and developing residential, commercial and home-building projects throughout Florida and in Dallas. The company’s attorney, Harvey Oyer of Shutts & Bowen in West Palm Beach, said neither he nor company officials would comment.
But Kelly Smallridge, president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, has some ideas for what could be built on the site: A large corporate headquarters.
Smallridge said Palm Beach County can’t now compete for deals that require big plots of land, but if zoning changes are approved, and roads are built, she can use the land as a lure to businesses.
“If it becomes shovel-ready, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” Smallridge said. “It opens up a whole new list of prospects to go after.”
The Vavrus ranch, owned by patriarch Charles Vavrus, has a colorful history. After he cleared trees without city permits, the city sued him in March 1999. Vavrus countersued. In 2004, a court denied Vavrus’ request to keep the city out of its ranching and farming operations.
Just one year earlier, in 2003, La Jolla, Calif.-based Scripps Research Institute came to town looking for a Florida campus. Members of the county’s business recruitment arm, the Business Development Board, zeroed in on the Mecca Farms site, an orange grove in northwestern Palm Beach County.
The BDB, which is partly funded by taxpayers, also locked up a portion of the nearby Vavrus Ranch for housing. It had a separate entity buy the land, and Lennar Corp. and Centex Homes agreed to develop the site into a “biotech village,” a community of homes, shops, offices and parks.
But the move by then-leaders of the BDB was criticized because the group used its county-appointed position as corporate recruiter to create a side business that could have netted a $51 million windfall on the sale of the Vavrus land.
The insider dealing struck many as more of a real estate deal for Vavrus, with a biotech Scripps component next door, than the best location for Scripps in Palm Beach County. Even then-Scripps leader Richard Lerner scoffed at the notion that scientists would limit themselves to buying homes at Vavrus as some sort of “science ghetto.”
There were other issues with Vavrus, particularly traffic worries and concerns by environmentalists that the property has valuable wetlands. In 2006, Lennar and Centex walked away. Vavrus said he would stick to raising cows.
Scripps built its research center in Jupiter.
Since then, some developers have toyed with buying the Vavrus Ranch, but no deal has transpired. Word is, however, that the Vavrus family is ready to sell now, and Landstar is ready to buy.
And with the recession leaving many communities