By Cecilia Chan GSN Managing Editor

Nine years after critics slammed Gilbert for paying over-market price for 143 acres for a park, the town could soon be laughing its way to the bank.

The Town Council back then approved spending $50.2 million the two parcels of farm land in south Gilbert – which worked out to about $300,000 an acre, overinflated for a market experiencing a downturn in 2009.

Two weeks ago, the town auctioned the first of the two parcels, a 58-acre site at Germann and Greenfield roads, to a home developer for $18.5 million or $319,000 an acre.

For former Councilwoman Linda Abbott, it’s a vindication of her vote approving the purchase. Abbott was booted out of office in 2011 partly because of the unpopular land deal using taxpayer money.

“I maintained that this land over time, with its significant acreage, infrastructure and desirable location would regain its value and continue to be in demand by the development community when the market recovered,” Abbott said.

She said when discussions began in 2007 for a regional park for south Gilbert, there was no downturn in the real-estate market and there was in fact a housing boom in the town, especially in its southern reaches.

At the time, diary farmer Bernard Zinke’s land was identified as central to the population that was and remains under-served for recreation, Abbott said.

“Also, it was unanimous that the council would not support condemnation to acquire any identified properties,” she said. “There were lessons learned as no appraisal was done and changes in policy adopted as a result.”

Arizona-based Blandford Homes submitted the winning bid in the Aug. 14 auction that saw just one other registered bidder, according to town spokeswoman Jennifer Alvarez.

The opening bid of $15 million came from Taylor Morrison with the two home builders trading a total of 48 bids, Alvarez said.

Town Council is scheduled to review the proposed $18.5 million purchase contract with Blandford Homes at the Sept. 6 meeting, she added.

The remaining 80-acre site at Chandler Heights and Greenfield roads goes to auction Sept. 11.

Proceeds from the land sales will help fund the estimated $100 million cost of building the 272-acre Gilbert Regional Park in the Chandler Heights Basin near the southwest corner of Queen Creek and Higley roads. Phase 1, 30 acres that includes tennis courts, a playground, splash pad and armadas, is expected to be completed by September 2019.

Council at the Aug. 2 meeting approved Gilbert Regional Park as the official name for the park as well as Desert Sky Park as the official name for Rittenhouse District Park.

Although the town later found the Zinke property was no longer needed, choosing instead the much larger location at Chandler Heights Basin to site its park, Abbott said she still believed the land should  have been kept to meet future recreational needs for residents in south Gilbert.

She said the county land Gilbert acquired for Gilbert Regional Park is not centrally located and its construction also depends on bonds that need to be passed by voters.

“If all goes well, it will still be decades away until this new location is able to meet the recreational demands of Gilbert families,” Abbott said.

She said the current council should instead put park amenities on the debt-free Zinke land.