by Jeremy Morrison
When grown men begin addressing each other as “sir,” it’s not usually because they’re being polite. And when they throw weird sounding deals onto the table, it’s not because they’re finished negotiating.
“At this very moment, not tomorrow, right now,” declared Gulf Breeze Mayor Matt Danheisser, “the city of Gulf Breeze will give away the property to DOT. I’m not saying we’ll give it to them tomorrow. We will give it to them this very minute.”
It seemed like a sweet deal for the Florida Department of Transportation, but FDOT District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield saw the question marks and dollar signs lurking in the shadows. The mayor’s “give” translated loosely to “we will simply defer to a later date the amount to be compensated.”
“How can I sign an agreement and basically write a blank check,” Barfield asked.
At issue: how much money FDOT would be able to wrangle up in order to offer Gulf Breeze something for the portion of Wayside Park needed for construction of a new bay bridge. The involved parties met July 5 in an attempt to hammer out something agreeable, or at least more appealing than a courtroom.
To date, FDOT was ponying up a couple of million dollars. Or nothing. Or eminent domain.
“I have to be prepared to go to court and take the land from you and all of your neighbors if we have to do that,” Barfield warned.
The overall concept of paying a municipality seemed entirely unappetizing to the secretary. He explained to the Gulf Breeze City Council how he was unaccustomed to doing so, hadn’t done so in 30 years.
“You’re right-of-way manual says that you do,” Dannheisser challenged.
“No,” Barfield replied, “it says that I can.”
The transportation secretary sent his hands to wrestle behind his back as he addressed the city council. He squeezed his thumb pink into his palm, then allowed it to wriggle free before pinning it down once more. There was a $500-plus million project to keep on track and apparently “urgency within the agency” had put him in a mood to “get to that level of understanding” with the city council.
“I’m trying to work with you as much as I can, to lesson the impact as much as I can, but, again, there is a limit,” Barfield said.
The city of Gulf Breeze was also feeling some sense of urgency. Local and state officials were weighing in, putting the pressure on. They warned the delay could screw up the state funding for the bridge, that it could result in a toll.
“First thing is,” cautioned Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, who found himself briefly sweating out a possible Sunshine violation for jumping into the fray, “we do not want this to go back to the legislature. We do not want that to happen.”
City Councilwoman Renee Bookout confirmed the commissioner’s assertion. She had also spoken with Sen. Don Gaetz, the Northwest Florida legislator who’d delivered the bridge funds from Tallahassee.
“My conversation with Don — in my conversation with Sen. Gaetz, he said there was a chance the state would hold back and we would have a toll bridge.”
Luckily, an informal number had been thrown out earlier by Councilman David Landfair. Informal, but specific: $5.9 million.
“We don’t want a toll, and we hope it doesn’t end up there,” Landfair nudged his fellow council members to try to “strike a deal.”
Other members of council were at least interested enough to cartwheel into loose negotiations with the FDOT secretary on the spot.
“Is the $5.9 million an offer?” asked Bookout.
“I think 5.9 is on the table,” Barfield smiled.
While there were some concerns raised about the value of the property — “How important are appraisals?” Dannheisser wondered almost rhetorically at one point — the process had already gained momentum.
“Give me a number,” Barfield said.
“Five?” Bookout asked.
“Is that your best number?” the secretary laughed.
“I don’t understand this process,” complained Councilman Joseph Henderson. “I’ll take two cards please!”
Eventually, the council and FDOT settled on $5.9 million. While not as much as some would have liked, it was significantly more than the state’s original offer of $2.2 million.
Councilman Henderson wondered what exactly had changed the dynamics of the math. Why was more money now suddenly available.
“Timing is everything,” Barfield told the council.