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Palm Beach County okays negotiations for land swap for Astros-Nationals spring training site

Viera, Fla., in 2011. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Palm Beach County voted Tuesday to continue negotiations and potentially make an unsolicited offer to the city of West Palm Beach for a land swap that could give the Nationals and Astros the needed site for a two-team spring training facility. The county approved $108 million in public funding in October for the proposed $135 million complex but lacked a site. In the midst of the 90-day period to find a site, the county circled back to 160 acres of city-owned land that was once ruled out.

But in order to secure the land, the county and city would likely have to work out a land swap arrangement. Earlier this year, the county rejected an offer from West Palm Beach to trade the 160-acre plot at 45th Street and Haverhill Road for nearly two acres of prime downtown land owned by the county. After surveying potential sites across the county again, the teams told county officials that the 160-acre Haverhill site was perhaps the best site for a spring training facility.

Striking a deal with the city will be the challenging part. In October, West Palm Beach city officials entered into a exclusive negotiating rights with a Boca Raton developer for a mixed-used project on the 160-acre site, arguing that it would generate more tax revenue for the city. The city, which has been firm in negotiations about spring training, is expected to consider alternative proposals for the land early next year.

Although the Palm Beach County Commission voted 5-2 on Tuesday to continue negotiations about a land swap, county officials expressed concern about an equal exchange and the value of the 160-acre site. The county’s near-two-acre plot in downtown West Palm Beach is valued at about $4.8 million, according to county documents.

“It looks like we trading [Marlins slugger] Giancarlo Stanton for a .200 hitter on the Astros,” County Commissioner Steven Abrams said.

To sweeten the deal, the Astros and Nationals amended their Haverhill site proposal and offered to a build an eight-acre city park and give the city access to the 11-acre lake and the athletics facilities when not in use.

“We appreciate the Palm Beach County Commission’s willingness to open discussions with the City of West Palm Beach regarding a possible land exchange to facilitate the construction of a new spring training facility for the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros baseball teams,” said Nationals partner Arthur Fuccillo, the team’s point person in negotiations, in a statement.

For years, the Nationals have wanted to leave Viera, where bus rides to the closest Grapefruit League opponent are at least 75 minutes. The Nationals’ lease for Space Coast Stadium doesn’t expire until 2017, but they asked Brevard County officials in spring 2013 to break their lease after the 2014 season.

After failed relocation proposals in Kissimmee and Fort Myers, the Nationals hired former U.S. congressman and Palm Beach County native Mark Foley to help in negotiations with Palm Beach County. If the Nationals found a home in Palm Beach County, they would be closer to the Cardinals, Marlins and Mets.

Those teams, and the Nationals, are the only ones to base their spring training homes on the east coast of Florida, and the Cardinals’ and Marlins’ lease for Roger Dean Stadium allows them to leave if that number drops below four. The Marlins, for example, have the option to leave Roger Dean Stadium after 2017 if there aren’t four teams within close proximity despite the lease running through 2027. So it is in Palm Beach County’s interest to attract new teams.

“Travel time is what’s key to all these teams in spring training,” County Commissioner Hal Valeche said. “… I think we’re gong to lose baseball if we don’t do this. That’s why I’m supporting this.”

The soonest the Nationals hope to be in a new spring training facility is in 2017, the timetable the Astros have publicly targeted. In April, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said the team will remain in Viera for at least one more year but “probably two more years,” meaning 2016 could be the last spring in Viera.