Wetlands in peril: County in bidding war for Pal-Mar preserves

Private ownership, dispute over value jeopardizes county’s ability to salvage untouched properties on Martin County border.

Pal-Mar Hungryland

When Palm Beach County set out to buy land in the north county wetlands known as Pal-Mar, two appraisers hired by the county independently reached the same conclusion about the land’s value: $25,000 per acre.

The county didn’t want to pay that much.

“I need your help,” county Project Manager Ben Williamson wrote to both appraisers in June 2022. “Consider a downward adjustment.”

The appraisers did what the county asked. 

To county officials, intent on buying as much land as possible with $4 million in federal money, telling its appraisers to consider other recent land sales seemed a justifiable adjustment, a “common practice,” as one official said.

To landowners who want top dollar for their land, the county’s rejection of its first appraisal mars its credibility. The appraisers didn’t work with new information when they lowered the values by about 40 percent, the landowners said. The only thing that changed, is that the appraisers relied on nearby sales that they initially had rejected.

The clash raises questions about just how far the county can go to get the best deal for taxpayers — even if it comes at the expense of landowners, many of them out-of-state residents whose families paid little for the land decades ago.  

And it underlines the flaws inherent in the appraisal process, flaws that captured national attention when unrealistic valuations laid the groundwork for the nation’s 2008 housing bust.

At risk is the county’s ability to buy and preserve hundreds of privately owned acres in northern Palm Beach County, where wetlands have flourished as the county has fended off development since the 1970s.

After the county’s request, West Palm Beach-based Anderson & Carr came back with new appraisals that placed the land’s value at $15,000 per acre

The second appraiser, M.R. Ford & Associates, came back with $16,000

The county split the difference. It offered landowners $15,500 per acre.

Zach Gazza
Zach Gazza in June 2022 on his property in the Martin County section of Pal-Mar, also known as Hungryland Trails. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Be A Man Buy Land

No money has been available in recent years to preserve land in the wilderness known as Pal-Mar, so named because it crosses the Palm Beach and Martin County borders. 

The biggest single purchase came in 1998, when the state led a consortium of governments to pay the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation $15.1 million for 15,325 acres, about half of Pal-Mar. 

Most of that land is now known as the John C. and Mariana Jones Hungryland Wildlife and Environmental Area.

The recent push to set aside $4 million in federal COVID relief money originated with the county’s Environmental Resources Management Department, headed by Deb Drum.

“It’s such a beautiful wetland,” Drum said. “It has so much potential to be a real shining star.” 

Wetlands
Wetlands in Palm Beach County’s Pal-Mar. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Among its features: It helps recharge underground aquifers that naturally push back against saltwater intrusion at the threatened Loxahatchee River. 

The money isn’t enough to save the entire 715-acre swath of Pal-Mar. With $4 million, the county could buy 258 acres at $15,500 acre or 160 acres at $25,000.

But there’s outside pressure on the county to buy the land. Drum wanted to make sure what is happening now in Martin County’s privately owned portion of Pal-Mar never happens in Palm Beach County.

Zach Gazza Stuart
Sign outside Zach Gazza’s Stuart office. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

And no one has more to do with what is happening in Martin County than an investor named Zach Gazza. With a simple buy-and-sell strategy and an extensive support network, he has altered forever the once isolated and quiet section of Pal-Mar in Martin County that he now calls The Zoo.

While much of the land is under government ownership, thousands of lots as small as a quarter-acre remain in private hands. 

Gazza, a New York native, began buying Pal-Mar land in 2015 under the corporate name Be A Man Buy Land. He paid $500 per acre here and $2,000 per acre there. 

These weren’t traditional land sales. Gazza chased down landowners spread across the country, told them he would pay them something for land they had not placed on the market and began assembling an outdoors empire.

He cemented his grip on Pal-Mar in 2017 when he paid the Palm Beach Heights Landowners Coalition, headed by north county real estate broker Bob Berman, $3 million for more than 1,200 acres in Martin and Palm Beach counties. 

For decades since Martin County blocked a development called Rotonda in the 1970s, the Pal-Mar fight has been between those wanting to build and those wanting to preserve. 

The original Rotonda developers, who bought the land from Chicago insurance magnate John D. MacArthur, started selling small lots to investors in the late 1960s, before any government had sanctioned their planned community.

The result was thousands of lots owned by people all over the world, many of whom had no idea the land was often under water and, without government consent, could not be built upon.

Gazza introduced a new dimension into the clash between preservationists and builders: Buyers who don’t want to build but want to go out in the wilderness and live the wild life on his or her own private slice of paradise. He marketed it as Hungryland Trails.

When COVID began shutting down recreational opportunities in 2020, Gazza’s sales took off.

Buyers angry that the pandemic closed even state parks eagerly spent $10,000 for a half-acre that they could control. 

Palm Beach County
Green marks Palm Beach County’s ownership in Pal-Mar before it began buying land in September 2022. (Palm Beach County)

A bidding war

Despite months of talks, when Palm Beach County first made its offer in September 2022 of $15,500 per acre, it made no offer to Gazza, the largest private landowner in Pal-Mar.

Since he owned so much land, the county figured he would sell at a bulk discount. When he balked at the reduced price, the county offered Gazza the same $15,500 as other landowners. 

Gazza said he wanted to sell, but not at that price.

And if he wasn’t going to sell, he reasoned, he couldn’t let the county take all the property around him. He would lose the option of merging smaller properties into big ones. 

On a bigger property, he could grow crops or run cattle, as allowed by the land’s agricultural zoning. 

The most value, however, would come from owning 20 acres in a single clump. County rules require ownership of at least 20 acres to build just one home, a point considered by the appraisers.  

Despite longstanding county policy that said nothing can be built in Pal-Mar, Anderson & Carr wrote that some lots “have potential for future development with possible commercial, residential or civic type uses subject to approvals.”

Palm Beach Pal-Mar
Wetlands Palm Beach County is trying to buy in Pal-Mar northwest of the Beeline Highway. (Anderson & Carr appraisal)

Those approvals would be hard to come by in a county that wants all the land preserved, Gazza knew. But residential lots in Palm Beach County can sell for $200,000 or more per acre.

With the county buying, his chance to achieve control around his properties would be lost forever. So he told Drum he would sell at the right price.

“So we’re in competition to buy the rest of these lots unless I don’t have any in Palm Beach County. Then I don’t care, you can buy them all,” he said he told her before getting an offer.

“She said ‘That would be great.’”

He wanted at least $25,000 an acre. When the county offered $15,500, he said no.

And he mailed out offer letters of his own.

Instead of securing Gazza’s holdings, which amounted to more than 10 percent of the targeted wetlands, the county found itself in a bidding war against him.

And since the county refused to offer any amount above appraised value, Gazza simply had to top $15,500 to increase his holdings.

To every owner who had just received a letter from the county, Gazza sent a letter offering to pay more. 

As a result, since the county’s land buying began in September 2022, Gazza has bought more land than Palm Beach County.

The scorecard?

Gazza added 50 acres, giving him 130. That’s nearly one-fifth of the wilderness.

During the same time, the county bought 38 acres and now owns 309 acres, slightly more than two-fifths.

Gazza laments the county’s failure to buy his land.

“It’s amazingly terrible leadership over there,” he said. “Whoever is making decisions — from not telling me about the appraisal to changing the appraisal to not buying out my properties — it’s a complete blunder on their part.”

He has no love-lost with County Commissioner Maria Marino, who has championed the land-buying program. 

At a November 2022 meeting of the Pal-Mar Water Control District board, of which Marino is chairwoman and Gazza is a former board member, she defended the appraised values. 

“For the county to offer $15,500 is a fair and reasonable offer,” Marino said at the time. 

In a recent interview, she said she couldn’t recall if she knew then that the first appraisals came in 40 percent higher. But she defended the county’s right to ask the appraisers to reconsider their initial valuation.  

“The county has the ability to ask questions,” she said. “Why did you come to this value and did you include this?”

It’s up to the appraisers to certify their numbers, she said.

Martin County Pal-Mar
The paths of off-road vehicles mar the mud of Pal-Mar in Martin County in 2022. (Contributed)

Ripped up wetlands

Since 2021, Gazza has sold more than 500 lots, mostly in Martin County. And what has happened to the land, in the view of many who have been fighting for decades to protect it, is heartbreaking.

Muddy trails rip the fabric of wetlands as dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles carve new paths. 

Gate 1 Hungryland
A bullet-riddled sign at Pal-Mar Gate 1 in Martin County off Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Distant neighbors complain of indiscriminate gunfire rising to a crescendo on weekends and endangering wildlife — and humans.

And to support that activity, owners of as little as a quarter-acre are roping off their turf, adding structures as large as RVs and mobile homes, digging wells and dropping hunting stands among the treetops. 

“We are a team of lumberjacks and lumberjills who believe in owning a piece of dirt you and your family can call your own,” Gazza’s Be A Man Buy Land website proclaimed. “Within an hour of your home, you can hunt, fish, shoot, 4-wheel, camp or build on your own piece of land.” 

So many new landowners have flocked to Pal-Mar that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which used to supply keys to a main gate for every property owner, stopped handing them out, saying it couldn’t afford to keep making new keys.

Pal-Mar Martin County
An aerial view on Martin County’s side of Pal-Mar in 2022. (Contributed)
Martin County
An illegal structure in Martin County’s side of Pal-Mar. (Martin County photo)
Illegal structures
An illegal structure cited by Martin County last year in Pal-Mar. (Martin County photo)
A ride through the Martin County Pal-Mar section, September 2022.

With the gate off Seminole Pratt Whitney Road in Martin County unlocked no one can say for sure who is ripping up the wetlands as just about anyone with a truck and an ATV can pop in for a Friday night ride.

Gazza initially asked Martin County officials if they would be interested in buying his land or making land swaps, which would allow both sides to consolidate their holdings. The talks didn’t go anywhere. 

And then Gazza began selling lots, focusing in The Zoo, a northeast section of Pal-Mar in Martin County.

Palm Beach County’s portion of Pal-Mar has escaped relatively unscathed.

Until now.

Cory Beaton
Cory Beaton on his Pal-Mar property along the Beeline Highway in Palm Beach County. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

A second holdout 

The second-largest private landowner on Palm Beach County’s side of Pal-Mar, Cory Beaton, also is holding out. Two-thirds of Beaton’s 37 acres touch on a paved road, the Beeline Highway west of Indiantown Road. The appraisers valued such land separately, at far higher rates than the land without immediate road access. 

Initially, the Ford appraisal put the road-front land at $60,000 an acre. Ford lowered the estimate of value to $35,000 after the county asked him to reconsider. 

Anderson & Carr’s appraisal dropped from $72,000 per acre for road-front to $43,000.

The county offered Beaton $40,000 an acre.

In a series of January emails, Beaton told county officials he would accept $47,300, 10 percent above the Anderson & Carr value of $43,000. The county is allowed to pay within 10 percent of appraised value. 

Beaton justified the higher value because his properties had better road access and, at 25 acres, more development potential, than the two properties reviewed by Anderson & Carr.

“A road front lot just sold for 65k an acre so I feel I’m being very generous at 10% over the appraisal of $43,000,” Beaton wrote.  

At that time, he said in an interview, he didn’t know the county had initially gotten an appraisal valuing his land at more than $60,000 an acre. He only learned of the earlier appraisal from Gazza, who had obtained copies of the appraisals through a public records request. 

When the county sent its initial offer letters, it did not attach the appraisals or even mention that it had conducted appraisals.

The county rejected Beaton’s counteroffer, which would have amounted to nearly $1.2 million for the 25 road-front acres.

More recently, Beaton said he asked for 10 percent above the $40,000 appraised value and the county rejected that as well. 

The county’s facilities chief, Isamí Ayala-Collazo, confirmed that the county could go 10 percent over appraised value but said she declined. 

“We made an offer that we have made to every single seller at exactly the same value,” she said. “The individual decided it was not an offer he wanted to receive. … We’re trying to treat every owner the same across the board.”

Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino
Marino

Marino agreed with the approach.

“If we change our program, what do we say to all those folks who already have purchased? They’re not worthy of 10 percent more?” she asked.

Beaton countered that with 25 acres of contiguous land, his property is worth far more than any of the other road front parcels the county could buy and they would be justified to pay slightly more. 

County hasn’t spent $1 million yet

The county did buy one road front parcel without paying extra. It paid Jorge Rodriguez of Palm Beach Country Estates $319,137 for a 7.9-acre parcel in August.

The county also has paid the appraised value, $15,500, for 21 interior lots totaling 30.5 acres. One 1.1-acre interior lot went for less, with the county paying $10,000.

During that same period, Gazza bought 34 parcels on 51 acres at an average cost of $16,983 per acre, property records show.

In all, through the program’s first year, the county has spent $785,000 plus closing costs while Gazza has spent $861,360. 

Now, the program is winding down, the county announced in a Sept. 11 letter to landowners.

But the county isn’t giving up. 

In its new letter, the county made the case to landowners that selling to the government would give them the satisfaction of assuring permanent conservation of their land. 

“While we recognize you may be considering competing offers, we ask that you keep in mind the long term benefits that a decision to sell to the county might entail,” the letter said. 

“Whereas the county’s sole goal is to preserve, other private competing interests may prioritize uses that detrimentally impact our environmental resources.”

Pal-Mar
A canal reflects a row of pine trees in Pal-Mar in Martin County. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

‘I need your help’

When the appraisers hired by the county first assessed the value of Gazza’s 80 acres, they focused on his sales at $20,000 or $25,000 an acre and did not consider the prices Gazza paid for the land. 

In fact, M.R. Ford relied on seven Gazza sales out of nine to establish the land’s value. Anderson & Carr relied on Gazza sales as well.

But they didn’t take into account Gazza’s purchases, in which he bought land for as little as $2,000 per acre.

That didn’t look right to the county’s facilities department. 

On June 9, Williamson, the county project manager, sent identical emails telling both appraisers “I need your help.” The county provided the email in response to a request for all comments sent to the appraisers.

Williamson pointed out that Gazza gave his buyers financing “with soft terms,” meaning low interest and low monthly payments.

“Similar concept as a ‘buy here pay here’ used car lot,” Williamson wrote, “where they take a car worth $2,000, mark it up to $7,000, then finance it with good terms.”

Investors, he wrote, no doubt meaning Gazza, “are buying parcels from uninformed sellers for a couple of thousand dollars, then offering the same property at a substantial marked-up price with a down payment. These investors are more in the cash-flow business … than the real estate business.”

Williamson provided a spreadsheet with 38 Martin County sales that averaged $7,962 per transaction. 

“I would agree that the cash sales don’t establish a current market value, however, it doesn’t support a $25,000 per acre value,” wrote Williamson, who is not an appraiser.

“I question whether all the property owners can even find their own parcel in Palm Beach Heights. Did some of them just purchase a lot with a small monthly payment, so they can get a key to the gates to gain access into the undeveloped area to hunt, camp, etc.?”

He ended with a request that the appraisers revisit their initial assessment after first confirming the information he provided.

Pal-Mar gate
Cory Beaton at his Pal-Mar gate off the Beeline Highway in Palm Beach County. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Credibility key to appraisals

Making changes at the request of a client does not violate appraisal industry standards as long as the changes are well-supported, several appraisers told OnGardens. 

“It IS NOT acceptable for an individual acting as an appraiser to advocate the cause of another,” guidelines issued by the Appraisal Institute say. “It IS acceptable for an appraiser to support his or her own opinions and conclusions, as long as those opinions or conclusions are credible.”

Revisions “have always been a part of the appraisal process,” veteran appraiser Ken Dicks, director of appraisal compliance and initiatives for Reggora, wrote in September 2022 for Appraiser Buzz.

Among the reasons to revise an appraisal, Dicks wrote, is “information discovered by the lender not made available to the appraiser at the time.”

It gets difficult for appraisers, however, when they are caught between the client’s wishes and their own beliefs. 

The appraiser’s value “is increased,” Dicks wrote, “when it stands up to the challenge and scrutiny of the purchaser of the service.”

But not everyone believes in the ability of appraisers to police themselves.

“They say what MAI stands for is Made As Instructed,” land broker Berman said, referring to the sanctioning body’s coveted Member of the Appraisal Institute designation. “This is probably one of the worst examples of manipulating appraisals that I ever heard.”

Appraising land is an art, not a science, said Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law and ethics professor. 

The strangest thing about these appraisals is that both ended up at essentially the same point  each time, not that the county inserted itself into the process, Jarvis said.

“From the county’s standpoint you always want to pay as little as possible. You should never be overpaying for anything,” Jarvis said.

“From the landowner’s perspective, anybody can make you an offer. No one is putting a gun to these landowners’ heads. If you don’t like their offer, you don’t have to take their offer.”

Pal-Mar land
Cory Beaton owns the property marked in red, the middle of his three contiguous properties along the Beeline Highway in Palm Beach County. (Palm Beach County Property Appraiser)

Valuing odd transactions

When appraiser Michael R. Ford turned in his final appraisal in July, it had four new comparisons, all 2021 and 2022 purchases by Gazza for between $2,000 and $4,000 an acre. Ford lowered the value of the interior lots from $25,000 an acre to $16,000. The new appraisal made no reference to the initial appraisal.

A month earlier Ford submitted a second appraisal with an even lower value, $13,000 an acre, but amended that upward in the final report. Anderson & Carr also submitted two reports in the same period. Those reports reached identical conclusions, both suggesting a significantly lower value than in Anderson & Carr’s initial report.  

Ayala-Collazo, the county’s facilities director, defended the widely different conclusions of value, saying “iterations and revisions before producing a final report are common practice.”

However, she said, only the appraisers could explain how they reached their conclusions. She said they could speak in general about appraisals but not about the specifics of the Pal-Mar valuation since they were working for the county. 

The appraisers did not return calls for comment.

Both appraisers are under a continuing contract to work for the county. Anderson & Carr has been paid more than $300,000 since 2013 on county jobs, payment records show. Ford has been paid $125,000 in the past five years.

The Pal-Mar job paid slightly less than $10,000 each.

Beaton, the Pal-Mar landowner, said he has filed a complaint against the appraisers with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency overseeing appraisers. 

“I really do care about the area. I would love to see it preserved for conservation. It’s unique. It’s pristine. It’s untouched Florida in a way,” Beaton said. “I get it to an extent. They want that $4 million to go as far as it can go. But I want the process to be done legitimately.”

Gazza asserted that the appraisers were right the first time to ignore the lower sales figures.

“A regular Joe isn’t going to go purchase this property because they don’t have the know-how to make sure the title is clean. It’s not on the open market,” he said.

Often, it’s a distressed situation with owners owing taxes, squabbling siblings or part of an estate, he said. “That’s how I can buy below market value.”

Ford treated those low prices with caution.

“For sellers, there is no practical way of marketing their properties because Realtors are reluctant to take on listings due to the low prices they sell at, and the relative isolation and difficulty in accessing them for showings,” Ford wrote in his updated appraisal.

To sell for $20,000 properties that cost $2,000, Gazza employed an “extraordinary acquisition and resales program,” Ford wrote.

“Mr. Gazza has set up pawn shops throughout Florida where he is actively marketing lots for sale … so that buyers can trade goods they possess to provide their down payment requirements,” Ford wrote

swamp buggy tracks
A swamp buggy trespassed on Cory Beaton’s Pal-Mar land, leaving deep tracks behind. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Preservation or profit

While the county and Gazza have combined to buy 57 parcels in a year, Gazza says some owners receiving competing bids figure that something must be up and their land is only going to go up in value if they hold onto it. 

So they’re standing pat.

Like Gazza, the county is trying to pull lots together to own unbroken sections of land. If it does, it can fence the properties to restrict human access and manage it by conducting prescribed burns, removing unneeded ditches and clearing exotic vegetation, said Drum, the county’s environmental steward.

But a lone holdout would get in the way. For instance, the county can’t put up a fence that would block someone from getting to their land. 

Her message to potential sellers: “I guarantee you I will preserve the property for all time.”

Meanwhile, Beaton is making plans to fence his property and run cattle on it.

And Gazza is looking to sell in the private marketplace.

His asking price? $45,000 per acre.

“I can’t hold out any longer not selling this stuff,” Gazza said. “They’ll starve me out. I’ve got to continue selling if I’m going to continue fighting the government.”

This story also appears in the Stet Media Group newsletter.

Joel@OnGardens.org

© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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