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Opponents of a proposed land swap between Escambia County and the U.S. Navy are “ignorant,” County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said Thursday.

The complex deal involves swapping the Navy’s OLF-8 helicopter field near the Navy Federal campus in Beulah for a similarly-sized parcel in Santa Rosa County that Escambia County has purchased and plans to develop to the Navy’s specifications. The price tag for the project has jumped from an estimated $6 million in 2013 to at least $13.8 million, and that doesn’t include the cost to develop the Beulah land into a planned commerce park. Some citizens — as well as County Commissioner Doug Underhill — have questioned the wisdom of the deal.

“Even if we spend $20 million, we’re going to get all our money back,” Bergosh said. “So the people who are crying, complaining, just being a member of the peanut gallery, hurling rocks while they’re hiding their hands, they don’t — they don’t know. And if they do know, it’s just willful ignorance or it’s a personal vendetta against someone.”

OLF-8, the Navy’s helicopter field in Beulah that’s the focus of a land swap deal involving Escambia County. (Escambia County Property Appraiser/Special to The Pulse)

Bergosh’s remarks came amid a discussion about comments Underhill made on social media, at which several commissioners took offense. “If I had just played ball on this one issue, I’d be running unopposed,” Underhill had written.

“Those are clear indictments of the character of the people you serve with, or I feel they’re clear indictments of me,” said Commissioner Steven Barry, speaking to Underhill. “When you say ‘I won’t play ball,’ that certainly implies that the rest of us do.”

Underhill has been sharply critical of the OLF project, which was conceived behind closed doors by Pensacola developer Jim Cronley and an unidentified “committee.” Cronley negotiated a sales contract for the Santa Rosa property and then brought the deal to commissioners in 2013.

Underhill told Barry that his comments weren’t directed at his fellow commissioners.

“The words ‘play ball’ were precisely the words given to me by the guy chairing the very in-the-shadows, in-the-shade committee, that is oftentimes referred to as ‘The Committee,’ that created this,” Underhill said, referring to Cronley. “Those were actual words right out of his mouth, given to me in a conference room over at Baskerville-Donovan. ‘We can make sure that you don’t have to worry about winning reelection.’ Specific, very clear words.”

Retired executive Alan McMillan is challenging Underhill in next year’s election with heavy financial support from Cronley and his businesses and family members, who have contributed at least $6,000 to McMillan’s campaign so far.

Bergosh, who has vocally supported the project, has also benefited from Cronley’s financial support. Cronley and his businesses directly contributed $6,500 to Bergosh’s 2016 campaign, and poured another $11,500 into a political action committee called “Experience Common Sense Leadership Florida” which spent more than $25,000 on behalf of Bergosh during the campaign.

Calling Underhill’s comments “disappointing,” Bergosh said he appreciated the fact that Barry defended himself.

“I do agree with you, none of us should be attacked personally, we’re all trying to do the best we can,” Bergosh said. “It’s one thing if it’s someone from the peanut gallery attacking us because they’re ignorant and they don’t know, or they don’t want development.”

Meanwhile, the OLF project is moving forward. According to an accounting distributed to commissioners this week, more than $6.8 million has been spent on the project thus far, with an additional $2 million encumbered.

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