When the "Cancer Cluster" in the The Acreage, whether real or imagined, first reared its ugly head people were paying close attention. Now that a Federal lawsuit has been filed, people are interpreting this as proof positive that there is a health threat.
With even the scare of contamination in the area, prices are plummeting and lenders are wary.
The Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Office has just begun its 2010 property analysis. John Thomas, the property appraiser's director of residential appraisal services, said it's too soon to tell how the label will affect values in the 110-square-mile Acreage.
Already, the average sale price of homes in the community has fallen from $395,759 at the peak of the real estate boom in 2006 to $196,847 last year _ a 50 percent drop. The community of Jupiter Farms, mostly made up of 1-acre lots or larger, saw its average price fall 42 percent during the same period.
"From Jan. 1, 2009 to Jan. 1, 2010, values have trended downward in Palm Beach County and I'm certain the trend in The Acreage is downward as well," Thomas said. "The difficult part will be how much is attributable to an already bad market or to the publicity ."
In the most severe cases of toxic contamination, such as Love Canal or the Escambia Wood Treating Company site in Pensacola, the government buys out homeowners. In 1997, more than 360 households in Pensacola were involved in a $23 million relocation after cancer-causing dioxin was found in the soil.
But full-scale relocations are rare, and part of The Acreage's problem is there is no clear culprit.
Initial tests concluded the ground water was "generally good, " and the state has promised to continue testing. If a cause is found, property appraisers can look at how much it costs to fix it.
In Hillsborough County, which has a handful of Superfund sites — a designation given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address hazardous waste sites — the property appraiser makes an evaluation by taking the value as if it was a clean site and then subtracting the cost to cure the problem as estimated by an environmental engineer.
"Most of the time, it's not how serious the problem is, but is there a responsible party or element," said Lois Gibbs, a former resident of Love Canal and founder of the Falls Church, Va.-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "Nobody wants to buy in an area where there is an unknown cause. That's even scarier."
While it's not yet clear how much Acreage property values could be affected by the cancer cluster, anecdotal information points to the area being at least temporarily branded with the real estate equivalent of a scarlet letter.
Lenders are wary of properties that may have "environmental hazards." Wells Fargo Home Mortgage requires appraisers to identify such hazards and assess the impact on the property value. "Our agencies and investors prohibit the sale of loans when a proven property hazard affects safety and habitability," said Wells Fargo Spokeswoman Debora Blume.
In August, SunTrust Mortgage denied a credit request for one family to buy a house in the northern Acreage, citing "possible environmental hazard."
In such troubled economic times, I certainly feel for the residents of The Acreage who are mostly blue collar folks just trying to do the best they can for their families.
In spite of everything, this is a great place to live and you can follow the Coastal Florida Lifestyle at:
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