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Uncertainty about 16th Street Ballfields as county sues to uphold deed restriction

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of November 26, 2020)

The Indian River Community Foundation’s board of directors has decided not to acquire the 16th Street Ballfields property the county sold to Vero Beach City Councilman Joe Graves in March 2017.

Jeff Pickering, the foundation’s chief executive officer, said the board explored the possibility of taking ownership of the 11.6-acre parcel – located immediately north of Vero Beach High School – through a bargain purchase and in-kind donation from Graves.

However, Pickering said the board opted to pass on the deal, at least partially because the county filed a lawsuit last week to uphold a deed restriction that limits the property’s use to recreation and youth activities, neither of which fits with the foundation’s mission.

“We kicked the tires, but with the legal issues unresolved and the potential of what’s able to be done there, the board decided not to proceed,” Pickering said. “We’ve communicated our decision to Joe.”

Graves said he did not want to comment on the foundation’s decision. Instead, he is now focusing his efforts on selling the property to another buyer – specifically, the School District, which he hopes will use the land to build a regulation-size track-and-field facility.

He said he has had “very preliminary” conversations about the property with Schools Superintendent Dr. David Moore.

“There has been some interest from the School District,” Graves said. “Dr. Moore is committed to getting a track at the high. This would be a good place to put it.”

In a one-sentence statement relayed through School District spokesperson Cristen Maddux, Moore said he will meet with Graves again in the “near future” to discuss the property and “explore all possibilities to benefit children in this community.”

Graves said St. Francis Manor, which provides housing to senior citizens on a limited income, also has expressed interest in at least a section of the property for possible expansion.

Pickering said Graves selling the property to the School District – “and maybe a portion of it to St. Francis Manor” – might be the “best-case scenario.”

“It’s a way to make something good come out of all this, and I think the county would be amenable to it,” Pickering said, adding that new School Board Chairman Brian Barefoot was “ideally suited to facilitate” such a deal.

A lack of community support for his original idea for the property put Graves in his current predicament.

Graves’ son, Jimmy, was 15 when he was killed in a boating accident, prompting the grief-stricken father to embark on a mission to honor his son with a recreation and youth-activities facility that bore his name.

Graves, through the foundation, negotiated the purchase of the 16th Street Ballfields from the county for $250,000 – a discounted price compared to the property’s appraised value – with plans to build the Jimmy Graves Sports Complex.

The project proved to be a money pit, however, and Graves was unable to attract the community backing to make his dream a reality.

As recently as late summer, Graves had a deal to sell the property for $1.1 million to an Orlando-based real estate developer. In early September, Graves canceled the contract with the developer and resurrected his initial plan for the property.