Land, Lots of Land - Much of It Marshy

While NASA and the Air Force pursued their own battle for beachheads, the Corps of Engineers continued its less spectacular efforts to stake out NASA's new land holdings on Merritt Island and at the north end of the range. Within two and a half years of its initial commission (that is, by 1 February 1964), the Corps had acquired the bulk of the needed land. Out of the more than 1,500 ownerships involved initially, a few were to remain unsettled for several years more.72 Not unexpectedly, the absentee owners of large tracts who could delay and negotiate came off better than the small owners who sometimes found their awards inadequate to purchase similar property in the neighborhood. At least one person owning cultivated land on Merritt Island sold the tract for $244 an acre. But one year later, when she wanted to purchase a similar plot on a non-NASA section of the island, she found the price to be $3,000 an acre.73

The buildings did not prove as simple an acquisition as the land. The Corps sold some for salvage, transferred 44 to the Brevard County School System for use as temporary classrooms, and turned one old building into a museum. The Air Force, among others, used the Standard Oil station to service official vehicles, the Roberts residence as a first-aid station, and several homes as security patrol offices. The purchase included a considerable number of trailers that eventually served in a variety of capacities.74

The disposition of more than 12 square kilometers of citrus trees proved one of the most difficult problems. NASA at first proposed to lease the land to the growers for five years. A representative of the Merritt Island citrus growers stated that they were willing to vacate their dwellings and farm the groves in accordance with NASA regulations, but desired to retain title to the property. They were afraid that a lease system would not guarantee them any right of repurchase if NASA no longer needed the tracts. The growers rightfully pointed out that it was difficult to spray, fertilize, and cultivate the groves without a guarantee that they could gather the fruit. Debus met with J. Hardin Peterson, a lawyer representing the Florida Citrus Mutual, as early as December 1961 and assured him and representatives of the citrus growers on North Merritt Island of NASA's good will.75

A group of citrus growers carried their complaints to Senator Spessard L. Holland (D., Fla.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations, who asked some sharp-edged questions of NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans in the April 1962 hearings on the Second Supplemental Appropriation Bill. Seamans referred the queries to Ralph E. Ulmer, Director of Facilities Coordination. Ulmer tried to dismiss Senator Holland's question with the statement: "We have received no recent complaints from landowners on that score." Senator Holland answered flatly: "You have received them, because I passed them on myself directly to Mr. Webb and to others in NASA, going back to last fall." The Senator insisted that the heart of the matter was NASA's attitude toward the production of citrus on eight square kilometers of valuable groves. Ulmer promised to give the matter careful attention. Late the following year, the Corps of Engineers announced a lease plan for the Merritt Island citrus groves that seemed much more satisfactory than earlier arrangements. In place of the original five-year lease plan, the Corps offered the original grove owners a lease until 30 June 1968, with an option to renew the lease for an additional five years. Two factors tended to make this option essential for the growers: young trees required more than five years to develop and the high cost of equipment could not be recovered in five years.76

The space agency finally took 340 square kilometers by purchase and negotiated with the State of Florida for the use of an additional 225 square kilometers of submerged lands. Much of the latter lay within the Mosquito Lagoon, separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of beach on the east. The property cost $72,171,487.77 The Space Center invited Brevard County to maintain a public beach north of the launching facilities, to be used whenever activities on the pads did not create a hazard. In 1963 NASA empowered the National Wildlife Service to administer those areas of the Space Center not immediately involved in space launch operations. At the time this covered about 230 square kilometers and formed a safety belt between the launch area and the population centers to the west and northwest. A few years later the manager of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was to report the identification of more than 150 species of birds. During the winter season the waterfowl population exceeded 400,000. Animals included alligators, wild pigs, and bobcats.78

NASA and the Department of the Interior were to finalize the arrangements between KSC and the Refuge some years later. NASA added lands, submerged lands, and waters, increasing the total under the control of the Refuge to 508 square kilometers. By this agreement, the Refuge would administer the citrus groves and lease fishing camps, previously handled by the Corps of Engineers; operate Playalinda Beach at the north end of the Cape; and cooperate with the Brevard Mosquito Control District. NASA provided fire protection and would continue to maintain all major highways, bridges, and traffic signals required for employee and public access to the spaceport and adjacent facilities. NASA could make use of these areas at any time in conjunction with the space program. NASA could terminate the agreement when the space program demanded it, or if the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife failed to use the premises according to the terms of the agreement. The Bureau, on its part, could withdraw if the nature of the space activities rendered the area unsuitable for wildlife purposes.79 NASA would have all the land it needed for the foreseeable future, as well as a safety belt that served a second purpose as a wildlife refuge.

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