City OKs purchase of prison for homeless center

The former Gainesville Correctional Institution in Gainesville is shown in this Jan. 12, 2012.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 9:28 p.m.

The City Commission has approved the purchase of a shuttered state prison in northeast Gainesville as the new site for a long-planned but still unbuilt homeless center.

However, litigation over the location that the city previously considered for the center may not be going away.

In a unanimous vote, commissioners voted to buy a swath of the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution property on the 2800 block of Northeast 39th Avenue, the first part of a planned two-step acquisition.

They also accepted a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit challenging a prior decision to locate the homeless center near an industrial stretch of Northwest 53rd Avenue, despite the fact that the attorney for the business park owner who sued the city said the offer was now off the table.

With the city moving to the prison site, more litigation may be looming over the old site near 53rd Avenue. On Wednesday, Lake Butler-based ADC Development & Investment Group, the owner of the property the city had an option to buy along 53rd, sent a letter alleging the city negotiated in "bad faith." The letter threatens legal action.

The state closed the Gainesville Correctional Institution in early 2012 and declared the property surplus later in the year. With the undeveloped site near Northwest 53rd tied up in litigation and wetlands permitting issues, the city eventually turned its attention toward the former prison.

The purchase that commissioners authorized staff to finalize will pay $753,000 for 28 acres, including $53,000 in closing costs. The city is also in talks with the state on a land swap for the rest of the property, which includes the medical building, gatehouse, administration building and parking lot.

In that deal, the state would receive a former law office north of City Hall on Northeast First Street that has recently housed the police detective division. The state plans to use that building for probation offices.

Already, the City Commission has received an email from a resident objecting to the location of a probation office at that site.

In the settlement agreement now under dispute, business park owner Ropen Nalbandian offered to donate a parcel known as the Gain property on the 5900 block of Waldo Road to the city on the condition that the city not apply for any land-use or zoning change to locate a homeless center within a mile radius of Nalbandian's property on Northwest 53rd Avenue.

Karl Sanders, a Jacksonville attorney representing Nalbandian, alleged Thursday that the city violated the terms of that agreement and said it has now withdrawn the offer to donate the Gain property.

"There is no offer to accept," Sanders said. "The offer is gone."

Sanders said the city's violation came in January in an initial vote on a proposed update of the Comprehensive Plan that, among other things, allowed any uses on a property with an industrial land-use designation and planned development zoning designation.

Those are the land-use and zoning categories of the property near Northwest 53rd that the city had eyed for the homeless shelter.

Sanders said that, while Nalbandian withdrew the offer of the land donation, he would give the city $25,000 to settle the case.

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said the city's lawyers disagreed with Sanders. She said the update of the Comprehensive Plan is a general policy decision that did not include a land-use or zoning change for a specific property. Shalley said that, from the city's perspective, the settlement had not been violated and the land donation was still part of an "irrevocable offer."

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the argument that a change to the policies of the Comprehensive Plan is an application to site a homeless center "bears no connection to reality."

Mayor Ed Braddy then told Hawkins he should show decorum and civility in his comments to Sanders, at which point Hawkins told Braddy he should do the same and not interrupt a commissioner's comments.

Commissioner Lauren Poe said the Gain property was a backup site if the shuttered prison fell through and he planned to see through a settlement that the sides negotiated in "good faith."

Grace Marketplace One Stop Center, as the homeless shelter and services center is known, was the main goal of a 10-year plan that city and county officials adopted some seven years ago to reduce homelessness.

Plans for the facility include a shelter, a soup kitchen, a possible campsite and a social service agency presence that would provide counseling, medical care and job placement.

The prison includes facilities that could fit in with the plan — such as dormitories, a kitchen and cafeteria, an infirmary, a library, a chapel, an outdoor exercise area and a former drug treatment center that could serve as a counseling center or office or classroom space.

Land acquisition and the renovation of the first four of the buildings on site are projected to cost $1.9 million. The city will seek nonprofit agencies to offer services at and run the center.

City Manager Russ Blackburn said the city would start with the base plan of a dormitory of up to 128 beds, an area with meals served and a presence of social service agencies. It could be operational by December.

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