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Will cancer mystery cool Satellite Beach growth?

October 14, 2018

SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. (AP) — When James Gaskin owned his South Patrick Shores pharmacy nearly three decades ago, people in the area were worried about reports of seemingly higher-than-normal cases of cancer.

As a businessman with a medical and science background, people expected Gaskin to separate the dire talk from facts during that early summer of 1991.

Were the residents of South Patrick Shores and neighboring Satellite Beach in danger? Would fears over a cancer cluster cause their home values and business investments to plummet?

Gaskin wanted to be a calming voice but he simply couldn’t provide any answers. He barely knew what Hodgkin’s disease was then and the 10 cases of South Patrick Shores residents diagnosed with the rare lymphatic cancer were a sad and tragic mystery.

One of those diagnosed, James Crockett, worked as a stock boy and clerk as a teenager at Gaskin Rexall Drugs. Crockett died from the cancer at age 46 in 1990 and his passing still haunts Gaskin.

Today, as cancer talk again reigns as topic No. 1 in the area, Gaskin finds himself just as dumbfounded as to what’s going on and how it might impact home values and business growth.

“I really don’t know,” said the 85-year-old Gaskin, who lives in a modest, two-story home in Satellite Beach with his wife, Nadine. It’s where they’ve spent most of their lives, moving to the city of about 11,000 people from South Patrick Shores because they needed a bigger house to raise their two sons.

“I just never could satisfy myself as to what might be causing it — my education didn’t help me a bit,” said Gaskin, a rail-thin University of Florida graduate originally from Plant City who witnessed the growth of both Patrick Air Force Base and the communities to the south.

Now, just as in the early 1990s, the cancer talk is dominating the conversations among many in the communities south of Patrick with rumor, innuendo and finger-pointing circulating among residents, business leaders and city officials.

Also, just like a quarter of a century ago, there are questions about what it will mean for home values and economic growth. Some say it’s an overblown fear while others aren’t so sure.

Internationally known environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who visited Satellite Beach last month to speak with residents about their cancer concerns, acknowledged that focusing on tainted soil and water supplies could very well impact property values. But finding a solution and addressing the problem could help them rebound.

“I understand the concern,” she told FLORIDA TODAY in an interview just prior to her Satellite Beach visit.

“Property values are impacted,” she said. “If we look at the bigger picture, our property values across this entire country are being impacted because of pollution. And you shouldn’t just hide behind that.”

A number of credible studies tend to back Brockovich.

One study by the Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, concluded that “once hazardous wastes are removed from a site, the discount associated with being located close to the site is reduced.

“We find that sales prices rebounded around sites that were remediated so that they were ultimately no different than sales prices of homes around clean commercial properties. In other words, we could not find any evidence that homes suffered “stigma” from being near previously contaminated sites after the sites were remediated.”

However it turns out, people want to make sure they get their boundaries correct.

There is South Patrick Shores, an unincorporated three-square-mile community along the beach, bordered by Patrick Air Force Base on the north. South of that is the city of Satellite Beach, where Satellite High is located.

Ayn Samuelson, president of the South Patrick Residents Association, believes the latest cancer scare could adversely impact local real estate and home values but doesn’t necessarily care about jurisdictional borders at this point.

Samuelson said she was told by a real estate broker of two potential buyers backing out of a deal in the beachside area because of the latest cancer talk. She declined to provide the broker’s name.

“We have ourselves a real, serious issue,” Samuelson said. “It could temporarily impact real estate sales, and those types of things, but we need to get to the bottom of it. If you’re looking for the truth and looking to stop the inputs into the system, that I think is the larger issue.”

Others disagree.

Karen Nierenberg, a Realtor with Dale Sorensen Real Estate, said she grew up in South Patrick Shores and was well aware of the cancer talk through the years.

“I never noticed any impact on home prices or sales,” Nierenberg said.

She expressed sympathy with those diagnosed with cancer and seeking answers but unless there is something more definite about what may be causing the health problems, “I don’t see it affecting sales,” Nierenberg said.

Available data so far doesn’t point to any discernible adverse business impacts from the latest round of cancer talk swirling around the community, even with the heated comments that comes these days via social media and critical comments — fair or unfair — by Brockovich and others aimed at Satellite Beach.

FLORIDA TODAY interviewed a number of area business leaders, public officials and real estate experts and most said a drop in property values always is a concern, and a few people have voiced those concerns to them.

But the cancer mystery, and possible causes, is one that goes back decades in the area.

The worries didn’t cause any financial setbacks back in 1991 and many really don’t expect it to this time around, unless someone validates a cancer cluster and pinpoints a cause.

“I don’t remember an impact on values,” said Dennis Basile, owner/broker of D. Basile Real Estate LLC, who did considerable work as an appraiser in Satellite Beach during the 1990s. “I remember the issue being discussed but I don’t remember a valuation change.”

Basile said other events clearly impacted values in the area, as they did much of Brevard, including the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, double-digit interest rates in the 1980s, and the most recent recession which was coupled with the end of NASA’s space shuttle program.

Those were hard, cause-and-effect economic realities, Basile said. The cancer issue isn’t as defined.

“It’s not like there’s a spot where you can say ‘Don’t get near that spot’ or it’s a warehouse with bad stuff in it and you know not to be around that warehouse,” Basile said. “You’d have varying values moving away from those spots if that was the case but we’re not really seeing that kind of decisive situation.”

Real estate throughout Brevard County has been hot for a couple years now and the Satellite Beach area remains one of the hottest.

Early reports from the Space Coast Association of Realtors have the median sales price for South Patrick Shores/Satellite Beach areas at $325,000, a 17 percent jump from a year ago.

Talks of cancer clusters also don’t appear to be impeding new development.

Vintage Estate Homes is constructing the second phase of Montecito, a mixture of upscale, Mediterranean-style townhomes off South Patrick Drive on land that once was carved out for air base service members.

And just behind Montecito, to the east along State Road A1A, construction crews are charging ahead with a 27-acre, gated-community development by Woodshire-Brevard LLC expected to bring dozens of million-dollar-plus homes to Satellite Beach.

There also is the Oceana Oceanfront Condominium, which is well underway, to the south.

“I would say we have seen no effect,” said Steven Schlitte, owner of Coldwell Banker Paradise, the company that is helping with the Woodshire-Brevard development.

“We do occasionally get the comments or questions regarding the problems that have been reported in the newspaper,” he said. “Frankly, I think most people have been quite trusting. The ways people interacted with well water in the past is quite different than it is now.”

All three projects, expected to vastly pump up the city of Satellite Beach’s tax base, have been well underway prior to last May when the Military Times published a story about cancer concerns surrounding firefighting foams like the type used at Patrick Air Force Base.

Residents in Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach who saw the article began linking up on social media to voice their concerns. That has led to a number of community meetings and testing by both the city of Satellite Beach and Brevard Public Schools.

It’s not all that dissimilar to what happened 1991 when more than 450 residents — some sobbing in frustration — from South Patrick Shores turned up for a town hall that spilled over from Sea Park Elementary to Satellite High School.

When someone with the national recognition, and following, of Brockovich puts your community in the crosshairs — like she did recently with Satellite Beach — the fear is that it becomes the next Love Canal, the community in upstate New York whose pollution woes in the 1970s led to the creation of the federal government’s Superfund law.

Few people, or businesses, want to be associated with an area like Love Canal.

“Satellite Beach & Brevard County, Florida. Will you please wake the hell up?” Brockovich wrote on a Facebook post last month about the issue. “The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one...”

Satellite Beach officials, who have put considerable effort into keeping the public informed and fielding people’s questions, while at the same time dispelling rumors, were stung by her comments.

“We’re trying to gather as many facts, and information that we can,” said Satellite Beach Mayor Frank Catino. “We want to put people at ease that we’re going to do the right thing so it doesn’t affect people’s homes.”

Catino also wants to make sure people — like Brockovich — disseminate the truth, not rumor or half-truths, when they use their public platforms.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “Don’t tell a lie. Tell the truth. And put out the information that’s correct. Half- truths are the same as a lie.”

Gaskin sold his Rexall drug store, located in what is now a Domino’s Pizza in the Skyview Plaza in South Patrick Shores, to Eckerd Corp. in 1997.

Sitting at his kitchen table in Satellite Beach on Debra Court, Gaskin goes through a pile of FLORIDA TODAY clippings from the 1990s cancer scare. When he notices he has gaps in his memory from that time, he calls in his wife, Nadine, to help.

Gaskin was instrumental in getting then-U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus involved but not much ever became of the Cape Canaveral Democrat’s efforts. And the cancer issue seemed to fade as the years went by.

But the death of Larry Crockett, his former employee, hasn’t. Gaskin speaks about Crockett almost as if he were a third son and he talked about how the two would boat and hunt together.

He is still pained by Crockett’s “long and lingering death.”

“Nadine and I still talk about him,” Gaskin said. “We still wonder.”

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Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com

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