‘Term sheet’ with details of deal likely to be ready for board consideration in July
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert had a lot of questions on May 20, but she ended up joining the rest of her colleagues in authorizing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to negotiate with a Miami firm interested in creating a workforce housing project on county land.
The focus of the discussion is the 114-acre parcel located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way; it stands at intersection of that street and Tuttle Avenue. The county purchased the land in late 2013 with the intent of turning it into a regional park. Over the past couple of years, however, board members’ attention has shifted to its potential for an affordable housing site in North Sarasota.
As Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson explained the proposal, Woodwater Investments of Miami would like to create a mixed-use project on the site. The developer has proposed 220 townhomes/apartments affordable to households at or below 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI); 200 single-family housing units; commercial uses that would serve the residents, as well as others living in the nearby community; 4.5 acres of greenspace that would be accessible to the public; and 10 acres of native habitat and other open space.
“We’ve been communicating [with Woodwater representatives] for roughly about 18 months,” Johnson said. On March 6, he continued, Woodwater sent County Administrator Lewis a formal letter, requesting negotiations that would lead to the company’s purchase of the property.
Johnson told the commissioners that, if they gave the go-ahead for those negotiations, staff’s goal would be to complete a “term sheet,” outlining the details of the sale, before the commissioners go on their summer break in July.
Detert immediately began questioning the proposed residential mix, indicating her concern that an insufficient number of units would be affordable or workforce housing.
The negotiations would delve into that, Johnson responded.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says that 100% AMI this year for a family of four in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is $76,700. Therefore, 80% of AMI — which HUD considers low income — would be $61,200 for a family of four. Very low income — 50% of AMI — would be $38,250 for a family of four, the HUD chart notes.
The intent of earlier board discussions, Chair Michael Moran pointed out, was to make county property available for a public/private partnership through which a developer would be willing to provide a “creative solution” to the county’s need for more workforce housing. The purpose of the presentation that day, he continued, was for the board to approve — “or not” — allowing the negotiations to take place in regard to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way property.
Detert then indicated a concern that the developer is based in Miami. “I prefer that they be at least on this coast.”
She added that she also thought that a representative of the firm had met one-on-one with each commissioner. “There was something in that meeting [she conducted with the person] that really struck a sour note with me,” she said, though she could not recall what it was.
Woodwater Investments’ website identifies Barron Channer as the CEO and founder of the firm.
Then Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that he was on the board when the property was purchased. Hines told Johnson, “You’ve probably had some pushback from folks” because the commissioners are willing to give up the prospect of a regional park on the site. However, Hines said he feels the biggest need in the community is workforce and affordable housing, instead of more softball and baseball fields.
“This is an incredible piece of property,” he stressed. “It’s very large, and we have a very, very unique opportunity to do something special beyond just housing.”
Hines pointed to the proposal for part of the acreage to remain open and accessible to the public. Additionally, he said, “The commercial aspect of it is very important. There is what is called a ‘food desert’ in the area.” Thus, Hines continued, “There is very much a need for a grocery store.”
However, he did indicate concurrence with Detert’s concerns regarding the mix of affordable housing and market-rate homes on the site.
“Obviously, they’re going to ask for a significant discount [on the price of the parcel],” Hines added of Woodwater Investments. Perhaps the principals of the company are even hoping the county will give them the land, he said. Nevertheless, Hines told his colleagues, “I’d like to do a deal on this.”
The property is within the county’s Urban Service Core, he pointed out. And given its size, he said, the project that ends up on the site “needs to make a significant impact.”
The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office record for the land shows its market value in 2019 was $3,399,300. The county bought it from Aqua Infrastructure LLC for $2 million in December 2013, the record notes.
Further frustrations and talk of opportunities
As for Detert’s frustration that the company is in Miami, Hines emphasized that the commission and staff had made the property available for an affordable housing development, but no local company was interested in pursuing that. “I wish they would [have].”
Then, addressing County Administrator Lewis, Hines said that if Woodwater wants “major discounts on this land, that affordable and workforce housing [mix] needs to be looked at very hard.”
Moreover, Hines told Lewis he wanted to see “pretty good detail about [Woodwater’s] relationships with quality tenants …” In other words, could Woodwater entice Publix or another, comparable grocery chain to build a store on the site. “The county just doesn’t want to give away something without getting something that really, really makes a good benefit for our community.”
At that point, Commissioner Alan Maio noted that AMI is “the midpoint of a region’s income distribution. …Even at 100% AMI, you’re still at the midpoint [of the area’s annual income level].”
What administrative staff was seeking that day, Maio reminded his colleagues, was direction on whether to proceed with negotiations.
“I would want reassurances that the gentleman we met with is not just a straw buyer or a flipper,” Detert said. “I’m thinking [the proposal entails] apartments [with more expensive houses], to make a profit, and then we get criticized for gentrification of the area.”
She added, “You want the area to be nice,” and her desire, she said, is for “people of every income level to be able to live there.”
Further, Detert continued, “I think we’d have to have a lot of discussion, outreach in that neighborhood … to tell those folks about the proposal.”
Her primary concern, she said, is that the Woodwater would ask the county to give it the land; yet, the company would not end up passing along its savings to buyers or tenants.
Maio finally made the motion to authorize Lewis to negotiate a term sheet for the commission’s consideration, and Detert seconded it.
“It’s either a toe in the water or the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said, but “it’s worth exploring.”
Then Commissioner Hines talked of the problems any private company has when it negotiates with a local government body. It is difficult to achieve the best deal when the board members discuss the parameters in public, he indicated. “We need to let our administration listen to us and negotiate a deal.”
Hines also stressed that workforce/affordable housing “has been one of our mainpriorities for several years, and it’s so hard to get there.”
If the developer’s proposal is fair, he added, he did not believe the commission would “nitpick [it] to death.”
“I think what’s before us today is a no-brainer,” Chair Moran said. “We have somebody before us [with] an entrepreneurial, free-market idea …”
Moran told Lewis to bring the board a term sheet. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have the final say …”