LAKE PLACID - After nearly almost a year of looking to unload more than 66,000 acres of agricultural land in southwest Highlands County and southeast DeSoto County, the sale of the Blue Head Ranch has transpired.
The ranch -- 100 square miles of cattle and crops in southwest Highlands County and two square miles of blueberries in DeSoto County -- was sold to SPP Land LLC, of Macon, Ga., a subsidiary of Southern Pines Plantations real estate company, for approximately $86.4 million and is one of the company's most significant land purchases in the past five years.
Patrick Patton, president of SPP Land, LLC, said Dec. 20, the company closed on buying 66,500 acres of land consisting of pastures, orange groves, strawberry fields and conservation easements. He said the company paid in different allocations per acre, depending on the crop.
Over the past 15 years, Patton, who has been with SPP for 27 years, said the company had been looking to obtain Alico Inc. and Ben Hill Griffin Inc. properties around Florida. Atlantic Blue Group Inc. is the family holding company for Ben Hill Griffin and sold the land bordering two counties and the sale is part of Atlantic Blue's divestiture of its controlling share in Alico.
Patton said the company plans to retain the land for agricultural use although some land sales may occur to increase returns on any remaining property. He said the last purchase of similar significance was SPP's purchase of over 78,000 acres in north Florida from The St. Joe Company in 2008.
"We mostly want to maximize returns through the opportunities the property provides us agriculturally, environmentally and water rights. I don't think our plans are to do any development," he said. "We're happy; I think we got a good, fair purchase."
Winter Park attorney Gary Lipson represented the Atlantic Blue Group in the sale of what is the last-remaining notable real-estate holding of the late citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr. who died in 1990. Lipson, an attorney with Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman of Orlando, represented the sellers for about two years when they decided to liquidate in 2013 because of beneficial tax laws that will expire in 2014.
"From a law firm point of view, we've lost a very good client. It's the end of an era," said Lipson. "But different people have different interests so this will be what's best for each one individually."
The news was welcomed by Heartland Agriculture Coalition director and executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. He said the property is the second largest land holding in Highlands County and Blue Head has been diversifying into cattle, blueberry, turf and sod operations.
"It will be interesting to see what new ownership, new management may mean. I know the current owners were looking to sell and it's always a refreshing thing when a new owner picks up a parcel. It brings about a certain sense of excitement and renewal; there may be a new plan," he said.
In January, Chip Boring, a broker with RE/MAX Plus Realty in Sebring, said depending on whether the land is planted in citrus, timber, vegetables or just open pasture, it could be worth from $3,000 to $5,000 an acre, making Blue Head worth $195 million to $325 million.
When notified the land had been sold, Boring said it could have sold for less for a number of reasons such as its tax liability, and if an estate was involved, the sellers were anxious to liquidate their assets and let it go.