County agrees to one last attempt at ownership of Little Salt Spring

Board members complain about numerous restrictions the University of Miami wants to impose, including one that might prohibit a new educational center on the site

A map shows the location of Little Salt Spring near North Port. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A map shows the location of Little Salt Spring near North Port. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Almost two years after negotiations began for a transfer of Little Salt Spring from the University of Miami to Sarasota County, disagreement over deed restrictions has led the Sarasota County Commission to call for staff to make just one more attempt to resolve the issues.

That direction occurred during the board’s Sept. 9 regular meeting in Sarasota, following an update from Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery.

“[The University of Miami (UM)] was irresponsible with the property and wants to dump it because they can’t afford to keep it any longer,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said after Lowery’s presentation. Referring to the deed restrictions the university wants to impose with the transfer of the property, Robinson added, “I can’t even remotely accept this. … UM just needs to do the right thing. They need to deed it to us.”

“I’m with her,” Chair Carolyn Mason said. To Lowery, she added, “Go get ’em!”

In her remarks, Lowery provided background on the issue. In 1980, General Development Corp. and the Little Salt Spring Foundation donated about 112 acres of property, including the Spring, via warranty deeds to UM.

Those deed restrictions, Lowery continued, provided for the following:

  • That the property should be operated as “a geological, archaeological and/or ecological preserve and facility.”
  • That if UM were “unwilling or unable” to comply with the restrictions, it could transfer the property to the state or federal government, with all deed restrictions made null and void upon that conveyance.

In late 2013, the county board members discussed a proposal from UM calling for the county to purchase the property for $2.11 million, the amount of an appraisal the university had commissioned.

In response, the board voted 3-2 on Oct. 23, 2013, to extend an offer to the university that called for the county to clean up the property and maintain and manage it if the university transferred ownership of it “as is” to the county at no cost. Then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta joined Robinson and Mason in directing county administrative staff to proceed with discussions on those points. Commissioners Charles Hines and Nora Patterson were in the minority on the vote.

On Dec. 20, 2013, UM’s board of trustees approved the donation of Little Salt Spring to the county for inclusion in the latter’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program. However, then county spokesman Curt Preisser told The Sarasota News Leader that one significant factor in the arrangement would be the necessity of UM’s conveying Little Salt Spring to the county through a federal or state agency, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

On Sept. 9, Lowery pointed out, “Neither UM nor the county — and it wasn’t for lack of trying — have been able to find a state or federal agency to accept the transfer of property.”

Recently, staff and university representatives began another round of negotiations, she continued. As a result, UM has made clear that it is unwilling to provide the county a warranty deed and standard warranties related to the use of the property.

Second, UM wants to prohibit the sale of the property to a third party for a profit, Lowery said.

Third, the university has stipulated that the deed restrictions be maintained in perpetuity, she told the board. Fourth, UM wants to impose all the restrictions of the North Port Overlay District, as they exist today, as deed restrictions on the property in perpetuity.

It is not clear whether an environmental education center would be allowed on the site because of those restrictions, Lowery noted. Any use “not expressly permitted is prohibited unless, by competence of substantial evidence, we can prove the activity would not have any adverse impact on the spring or the property,” she told the board.

Staff wanted to make the commissioners aware of all this, Lowery said, “because [the restrictions] are very concerning to both the county attorney and County Administrator’s Office.”

The University of Miami has owned and operated Little Salt Spring since 1982. Photo courtesy Friends of Little Salt Spring
The University of Miami has owned and operated Little Salt Spring since 1982. Photo courtesy Friends of Little Salt Spring

Commission consternation

Noting that UM is her alma mater, Robinson replied that university representatives “haven’t taken really good care of the property. As a matter of fact, they had some structures down there — ‘dilapidated’ would be [a] generous [description].”

On one of her visits to Little Salt Spring several years ago, Robinson continued, she realized a person had to be careful where he or she stood in one trailer for fear of putting a foot through the floor.

Mason told her colleagues that she also had visited the site in the past, before Robinson joined the board in late 2010, “and I was shocked at the condition of those trailers that were there.”

Robinson summarized the situation on the basis of Lowery’s presentation: The university is unwilling to provide a warranty deed on the property because of the university’s poor upkeep of the structures there; yet, the university wants to impose numerous restrictions on the site for the future. “Is that correct?” Robinson asked Lowery.

‘Yes, ma’am,” Lowery responded.

When she voted in 2013 to proceed on the negotiations, Robinson pointed out, she was thinking not just of students attending the three schools near Little Salt Spring, but also of those from schools all over the county having an opportunity to visit the site “to learn about the environment, to learn about the archaeology … and a whole host of issues.”

Robinson reiterated her earlier point: “UM should be willing to turn this over to us because they haven’t taken care of [the property] and they understand we will,” even though that will entail “a substantial financial burden” for the county.

Commissioner Charles Hines called Little Salt Spring “a unique property.” However, he said, “The terms that are being placed on it are just not acceptable.”

Nonetheless, he continued, he did not want to cease negotiations. “I think we should go back to them and say, ‘You need to get real on this; we’re taking this from you and taking on the responsibility of it,’” but with normal stipulations in place to protect it.

County Administrator Tom Harmer indicated he felt the changes in the terms had come about after the installation of a new president at the university and because of the inclusion on the negotiating team of a new attorney for UM who specializes in environmental law.

Given the commissioners’ comments, Harmer told the board he would allow county staff members to approach UM representatives one more time, conveying the board members’ views in an attempt to resolve the issues.

“I don’t think anybody up here wants to turn our back on it,” Mason said, referring to her colleagues on the dais. “We want you to go back and tell them, ‘Now, listen: Let’s get this straight!”

“Understood,” Lowery responded.