Commissioners voice disappointment that School Board denied request to allow sublease of property to building industry group
The Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously on July 13 to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to consider the best use of the Florida House structure until the county’s land lease with the Sarasota County School Board ends in 2027.
The vote followed an update that Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham provided them. Noting that the School Board had refused the commission’s request to sublease the property to the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA), Cunningham offered four options for the board. The commissioners chose the one staff had recommended.
Before passing the gavel to Vice Chair Ron Cutsinger so he could make the motion, Chair Alan Maio referenced the June 7 School Board vote regarding “the group that we wanted to put in that building.”
Yet, Maio said, “I have no interest in any intramural squabbles with the school district. … They made a decision. It’s their property … There was no hostility there … and we have to live with that.”
Noting that the county lease with the School Board will not end until June 30, 2027, Maio pointed out, “I think this just gives everybody a bit of time … to figure out what we want to do.”
That lease, which was put into effect in 2007, calls for the county to pay the School Board $1 per year. The property is located at 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota.
Maio said he felt sure that County Administrator Lewis and his assistant administrators would come up with suitable proposals for the commissioners to consider.
A March 14 county staff report on the Florida House issues raised over the past year explained, for example, that the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension and Sustainability program has outgrown its office space at Twin Lakes Park on Clark Road. The commissioners have allocated $500,000 for the design of an expanded UF/IFAS facility, if voters approve another 15 years of the county’s penny sales tax program during a November General Election referendum, the report continued.
Therefore, in the meantime, the report pointed out, the Florida House building potentially could “provide immediate relief for some of the needed office space …”
Commissioner Michael Moran — who made the motion on April 26 that called for county staff negotiations with the MSBIA — concurred with Maio on July 13 that allowing County Administrator Lewis and staff to develop a plan for how best to use the Florida House building over the next five years “makes sense …”
Nonetheless, Moran said, “I was a little disappointed, too, honestly,” with the School Board’s position.
Moran also acknowledged, “I know that this is moving fast, and a lot of emotions are going on.” Still, he pointed out, “There’s no immediate urgency here” for Lewis to come up with options.
Moreover, Moran said, “Things might change down the road.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert, who opposed Moran’s April 26 motion, noted of the lease with the School Board, “These kind of agreements never work out. Ask any mobile home owner who owns their house but not the land it sits on … There’s always a conflict of interest, and that’s the situation we find ourselves in.”
The other options for the commissioners, courtesy of staff
During his July 13 presentation, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham noted that the county’s lease for the property makes clear the types of uses that the School Board would approve on the property.
He then talked about the four options that staff had proposed for the commissioners to consider. The others were as follows:
- Continue to negotiate with the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association to take ownership and move the structure that previously was home to the Florida House. (As the News Leader noted in its July 8 issue, the leadership of what used to be the Florida House Institute and is now Southface Sarasota has signed a memorandum of understanding with New College of Florida to relocate to that campus. County staff notified Southface Sarasota earlier this year that the county’s sublease with the nonprofit would not be renewed; the sublease was set to expire on July 9.)
- Enter into negotiations to consider transferring ownership of the Florida House building to the School Board.
- Solicit proposals from outside agencies to operate the Florida House.
As the News Leader also has reported, the School Board has sought to acquire the structure. Superintendent Brennan Asplen III repeated that desire in a June 20 letter to County Administrator Lewis. That was the same correspondence in which Asplen reported on the School Board’s June 7 vote.
On July 13, Cunningham reminded the commissioners of the School Board request.
Following Cunningham’s presentation, Maio announced that he planned to make a motion, “since I’m the guy who’s been attacked by the outside world most on this.”
Just before the vote, Maio also said, “The one thing about all of this that saddens me is [the fact that] people that I know, really, I think, went over the edge with some of the comments about me and about [other commissioners in regard to their interest in the MSBIA proposal].”
Last year, Jon Mast, CEO of the MSBIA, sought the board’s approval to purchase the Florida House building. His original proposal called for moving it to the county’s Northwest Quad, near the Celery Fields stormwater project, which has become an internationally known bird-watching destination in the eastern part of the county.
Subsequently, following a commission decision to erect a new Planning and Development Services “One Stop Center” on that parcel, the MSBIA asked that the commission allow it to relocate the structure to the Southwest Quad. However, county staff made it clear that that would not be an option, going so far as to put a post on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page to that effect.
The Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Quads are under a conservation easement that the commission approved, in the fall of 2020, with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey.
More recently, the Foundation and the Sarasota Audubon Society have been working on a project christened “Re-Wilding the Quad Parcels,” with the goal of improving “the land for nature and for people.”