Text by Cary Estes | Photography courtesy of Saunders Real Estate
The Land Report’s 2020 Deal of the Year actually took five years to orchestrate. The result was well worth it, as the State of Florida took title to a 17,000-acre tract known as the Bluffs of Saint Teresa, which veteran broker Dean Saunders refers to as “an absolute gem of a property.”
“The property was listed with me in 2015, and we didn’t finalize the deal until last October,” says Saunders, founder and managing director of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate. “Conservation deals like this are half real estate and half lobbying. You have to have an understanding and appreciation for how government works, and sometimes it doesn’t work quickly.”
Florida acquired the Panhandle property, which sits 50 miles southwest of Tallahassee, for $43 million from Ochlockonee Timberlands LLC, a subsidiary of AgReserves, Inc.
The parcel was part of a 382,000-acre purchase by Ochlockonee Timberlands from The St. Joe Company in 2014. Saunders assisted with that transaction as well, which led to the lengthy process of marketing The Bluffs to the state.
“No matter how beautiful this tract of land is, there were going to be several surplus tracts that did not fit the objectives of what Ochlockonee was looking to do,” Saunders says. “Once they closed on the original property, they focused on disposing of the surplus properties, and this was one of those tracts.”
Numerous entities were involved in the multiyear negotiations and eventual transaction, including The Nature Conservancy, which donated $2.25 million toward the purchase, and the Department of Defense, which operates three Air Force bases in the Panhandle and contributed $2.19 million. The bulk of the purchase was financed via Florida Forever, the state’s conservation land-acquisition program.
“The Nature Conservancy and the State of Florida have recognized the importance of the Bluffs for decades,” says Lindsay Stevens, Land Program Manager with The Nature Conservancy. “Folks in residential real estate are used to deals coming together relatively quickly and closing in 30 or 60 days. But conservation deals like this take quite a bit of time and effort to come to fruition.”
Another intriguing element was the transfer of title. “The Nature Conservancy was the lead negotiator on behalf of the State of Florida, working along with the property owner through the due diligence process. So The Nature Conservancy did not acquire the property. We assigned the contract that we negotiated with the property owner to the State of Florida, which completed the transaction. The bulk of the money came from the Florida Forever program, but The Nature Conservancy donated $2.25 million, because we recognize that it’s such an important conservation win for the State,” Stevens says.
One of the reasons the State of Florida made The Bluffs such a high priority is that the property was the final piece of a puzzle needed to create more than 1 million acres of contiguous protected property. “The hole in the doughnut” is how Saunders refers to it. The Bluffs closed the gap between Bald Point State Park to the east and Tate’s Hell State Forest to the west, and it connects to the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and Ochlockonee River State Park to the north.
“The landscape linkage that this makes is very important,” says Callie DeHaven, Director of the Division of State Lands with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “What made it all possible were the partnerships that went into this. The reason we were able to ultimately acquire this property is because of the efforts of many people. Also, the previous landowners were great stewards of the land, and they were patient in working with us through the conservation process.”
All those who were involved with the transaction rave about the beauty of the property, which is highlighted by 20-foot-high coastal dunes, thick mottes of live oak and sand pine, sapphire-blue spring-fed lakes, and surrounding salt marshes.
“A lot of times when people think about Florida, they think of palm trees and flamingos and white-sand beaches,” Stevens says. “That’s fantastic, but that’s not what this is. This is true, old natural Florida. You can stand on top of the bluffs and not see any development for miles. And now my grandchildren will be able to go there and see those same expansive views.”