School Board voted a year ago to terminate county’s lease for district property on Beneva Road
Stressing that he did not want to see any more taxpayer money dedicated to the Florida House, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran won full support of his colleagues this week in directing the Office of the County Attorney and county administrative staff to work with the Sarasota County School Board and the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (MSBIA) on the transfer of the structure to any nonprofit entity related to the MSBIA.
Although the county owns the Florida House building, the School Board owns the property where it stands, 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota.
In 2021, the MSBIA created the Building Industry Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, “for the purpose of providing educational programs, workforce development, and the promotion of green/sustainable construction,” Jon Mast, CEO of the MSBIA, informed the commissioners via letter in June of that year.
Commissioner Mark Smith had suggested that the commissioners simply turn over the structure to the School Board.
“I agree that we shouldn’t use any [more] of our tax money on this,” Smith said. “I think we should cut our losses.”
“I agree,” Commissioner Joe Neunder responded. “I think it’s time to cut bait here.”
Smith also pointed out that the School Board might refuse to negotiate with the MSBIA. In that event, the commissioners would have to try another approach, he said.
If the Office of the County Attorney and County Administration is unable to achieve success in those negotiations, Moran told his colleagues, then county staff can inform the commissioners of that result and the commissioners can decide what to do next.
At one point during the Sept. 12 discussion, Commissioner Neunder asked whether the Office of the County Attorney would be able to expedite the process of transferring ownership of the building to the MSBIA.
“We will move as fast as we can,” County Attorney Joshua Moye replied. Since only a building is involved, without the land it sits on, Moye indicated that the legal work would be more streamlined. For example, no title research would be involved.
Ultimately, all five commissioners supported Moran’s motion, which Commissioner Neil Rainford had seconded.
After months of County Commission attempts to transfer the Florida House to the MSBIA — at the MSBIA’s request in June 2021 — Brennan W. Asplen III, then the superintendent of the Sarasota County Schools — informed county staff via letter in June 2022 that the School Board had denied the commission’s request to sublease the property to the MSBIA.
The agreement between the county and the School Board included a clause that called for the School Board to approve any sublease, except to the Florida House Institute “or another, similar, appropriate community based organization acceptable to [the School Board].”
Twice, Asplen also wrote county administrative staff, conveying the fact that the school district was “ardently interested in keeping the [Florida House] in its existing location.” He added in a March 2, 2022 letter, “Sarasota County Schools wishes to secure ownership of the Florida House to ensure that the facility is able to maintain its profound contributions to our community, and beyond.”
The past and future of the Florida House
On Sept. 12, Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham provided the commissioners a review of the history of the Florida House, noting that it was completed in 1994 to provide educational programs and demonstration projects related to green building and sustainability.
One slide he showed the board members explained that the Florida House was developed by the Sarasota County Extension Service — which subsequently became the county’s University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (UF/IFAS) Extension and Sustainability program — “in partnership with sustainability and green building leaders.”
In 2007, to make way for the construction of the Suncoast Technical College on the original Florida House site, the building was moved to its current location, just north of the Suncoast Polytechnical High School property.
Subsequent to the MSBIA request to take possession of the Florida House, and former Superintendent Asplen’s overtures for the School Board to take ownership of it, the county terminated its lease with the Florida House Institute, which had become Southface Sarasota.
Then, in September 2022, the School Board members voted to terminate the lease of the site to the county, effective as of this month.
In accord with Section 11 of the lease agreement, the county would have one year to remove the Florida House structure from the site, as noted on the Sept. 6, 2022 School Board meeting agenda.
The lease was set to expire on June 30, 2027, as county administrative staff had pointed out to the county commissioners.
During his Sept. 12 presentation, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham pointed out that staff had estimated that it would cost $893,000 to relocate the building, restore the site where it has stood, renovate the structure, and operate it for the first year in a new location.
If the commission chose to demolish the structure, he continued, staff estimated that expense at $25,000 to $50,000, with another $25,000 necessary to restore the site. Thus, the total cost of that option could be as high as $75,000.
He presented two options to the commissioners:
- Seek a new lease with the School Board to operate the Florida House on Beneva Road, with county programs and services. Another slide explained that the county’s UF/IFAS Extension and Sustainability program has “critical space needs” that the building could help resolve. The county program could “provide educational classes, technical assistance, demonstration areas,” the slide said.
- Negotiate with the School Board on options for transferring the ownership of the house to the School Board.
Disputes over MSBIA’s involvement with the Florida House
Following Cunningham’s remarks, Commissioner Moran said, “I’m just continuously fascinated how in the world we got into this situation. … We … own a building that is on somebody else’s property.”
Referring to a county proposal to turn over the building to the MSBIA, he added, “Obviously, the School Board has to have something to say about it. But I’m not interested in subletting [the building and] I’m not interested in us being in a three-party agreement.”
He told his colleagues, “If I see another situation related to this, I’m going to lose it.”
Commissioner Neil Rainford responded, “Certainly don’t think [it] behooves us [to continue] pouring any more money into this building.” Supporting the transfer to the MSBIA, he added, “This building has been worked on pretty much exclusively by MSBIA and affiliated trades.”
In making his motion, Moran said that giving the Florida House to the MSBIA would be “getting back to how this whole thing started,” with the organization teaching trades and green industry practices in the structure. “I think we’re getting all the way full circle back to what the intention of this was.”
Mast, CEO of the MSBIA, wrote in his June 2021 letter to then-Commission Chair Alan Maio that the organization and its members “played a significant role in [the] creation and on-going maintenance” of the Florida House.
However, county residents have disputed that, both in comments to the commissioners when the issue of transferring ownership of the building to the MSBIA first arose and subsequently in comments to The Sarasota News Leader.
In late February 2022, Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota, told the commissioners during a regular meeting that just in the past year, “We’ve had over 2,200 hours” of hands-on training by students of the nearby Suncoast Technical College, who worked on the building’s plumbing, electrical, and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] systems. The students, she noted, also “got to work on cisterns, which they never would somewhere else.”
“We’ve done almost 100 tours” of the Florida House, Whittle continued.
Finally, she said, also over the past year, the Florida House had benefited from “$35,000 worth of in-kind donations,” including new PGT storm-resistant windows and new flooring.
The MSBIA’s leaders may say that that organization built the Florida House, she added, but in looking back through the records, she found that the MSBIA had donated less than $5,000 to the Florida House in its entire history.
Another speaker during that “Open to the Public” comment period of the same meeting, Matt Ross, a former board member of the Florida House Institute, pointed out that In his 29 years of working with the Florida House, he had “not seen the [MSBIA’s] presence at all.”
When the Florida House suffered through “lean times” in the early 2000s, Ross continued, “Where was the builders’ association? They weren’t there.”
The MSBIA has been opposed to the very green-building standards that the Florida House demonstrates, Ross stressed.