A little over eight acres of land off Thomas Drive is bordered on two sides by Naval Support Activity Panama City (NSA PC), but the property is at the center of the election campaign for Bay County commissioner.
During a debate between District 5 incumbent Mike Thomas and challenger Jim Lawson on News 13 Midday last week, Lawson accused the county of buying the Barefoot Palms property for $2.9 million in 2010 to "bail out" a "beach millionaire." Lawson said there was "no record anywhere" that the Navy asked the county to intervene until it could secure federal funding for the purchase.
"The Navy base came to us and asked us to buy and hold it until the government could buy it," Thomas said in response.
According to Tom Neubauer, president of the Bay Defense Alliance, the Navy initially expressed a desire to acquire a 16+ acre parcel adjacent to the NSA PC property in 2000 to enhance security, prevent encroachment and expand operations. The county used a Florida Defense Infrastructure Grant (DIG) to purchase eight acres in 2004 and later transferred ownership to NSA PC.
BC Palms, Inc. owned the remaining 8.4 acres and planned to build 80 townhomes; however, only eight were constructed. Wes Burnham, whose projects include Edgewater Beach Resort and Hombre Golf Club, is listed in state documents as the president of the corporation.
According to Neubauer, the Barefoot Palms development created encroachment and security concerns for NSA PC. The Bay Defense Alliance began investigating ways to acquire the property when it became apparent that the townhome community was failing due to the poor real estate market.
A document prepared for commissioners prior to the purchase decision suggests BC Palms, Inc. approached the county. "The developer… is struggling to keep the project out of foreclosure," the Agenda Item Summary reads. "Bay County was approached by the developer's representatives regarding an interim purchase of the property by the County for ultimate resale to the Navy or [Department of Defense]."
Steve Applegate, NSA PC Public Affairs Officer, said the request for county intervention didn't come from the Navy. "Bay County did it after recognizing the need and working through the Joint Land Use Study," he said.
According to Commissioner Thomas, former NSA PC Commander Jessica Pfefferkorn approached him directly about the county purchasing the property and holding on to it until federal funds became available. "She told me herself," he said.
Thomas said he voted to approve the purchase in order to assist one of Bay County's top employers and economic contributors. "Absolutely not," he responded when asked if the motivation included helping a wealthy developer out of a jam.
Neubauer said acquisition of the site remains a regional top priority and funding for the purchase is included in the Omnibus MILCON bill, which has not been approved by Congress. Meanwhile, the Bay Defense Alliance continues to pursue federal defense funds and plans to seek assistance through the state's DIG program.
"We are confident the acquisition will occur as planned, completing this twelve year effort," said Neubauer.
According to the 2010 sales contract between the county and BC Palms, the developer must buy the property back – at the purchase price plus associated costs – if the Navy fails to acquire the property within five years.