Future of Florida House to be focus of County Commission discussion no later than May, county administrator says

Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association still wants to move facility to one of county’s ‘Quads’ next to Celery Fields, but School Board also wants the Florida House

This is a view of the Florida House, as shown in the 2022-2024 strategic plan for its operations. Image from the Southface Sarasota website

In response to a request this week from Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis promised that staff would provide an update — either late this month or in early May — on a proposal by the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA) to purchase the The Florida House Institute building in Sarasota.

As noted in a staff report that the commissioners had requested in February — which was completed on March 14 —the Florida House was “the first green demonstration house in the country, [and it] has welcomed thousands of visitors from around the world who were interested in using less fossil fuel and more healthy products in their homes and yards.”

It stands at 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota.

Over the past year, the commissioners actually have called for two staff reports in regard to the future of the Florida House. Both were a result of the MSBIA proposal, which was sent to commission Chair Alan Maio late last spring.

Community champions of the Florida House have urged the commission to keep the facility where it is. They have stressed — as former board member Matt Ross noted during Feb. 23 comments to the commissioners — that the facility finally is “on a solid footing.”

That resulted from a 2019 partnership with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called Southface Institute, Ross pointed out.

(On the website for the Florida House, the name used is Southface Sarasota. In a Sept. 29, 2020 letter to the county, the Florida House Institute said it wanted to change its name to Southface Sarasota, and it wanted to assign the ownership rights of its facility to Southface “if or when the County’s lease with the School Board ends. The Sarasota County School Board owns the property where the building stands.)

(County administrative personnel sent a letter to Charles C. Reith, then-president of the board of the Florida House Institute, informing him that the county would not consent to the proposals in the 2020 letter.)

Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen III. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

In the meantime, county staff has informed the commissioners that the Sarasota County School Board is interested in buying the Florida House and keeping it where it is.

The second staff report, dated March 14, recommended that the commission take no action on the Florida House “at this time,” so staff could determine “if and how” the county could utilize the building.

The report pointed out, 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.

Notwithstanding that, the report added, the Florida House potentially could “provide immediate relief for some of the needed office space, contingent upon an evaluation of the building by the County’s Facilities staff.”

A second option, the report noted, would be soliciting proposals from outside agencies to operate the Florida House “in a manner consistent with the County’s Lease Agreement with the School Board.” That would have to be pursued prior to the July 9 expiration of the sublease, the report pointed out.

Further, the report said, the county could list the Florida House for sale, with the condition that the buyer relocate it at the buyer’s expense, or the buyer could obtain a lease with the School Board to keep the building on site.

Finally, the report pointed out, since the Florida House is located on School Board property, the county could offer the building to the School Board “for just consideration” and terminate the lease with the School Board.

During an earlier County Commission discussion on the proposal — held on May 18, 2021 — Commissioner Michael Moran noted that the county lease of the Beneva Road parcel where the Florida House stands will end on June 30, 2027.

The March 14 staff report explained that the county has the option of renewing its lease with the School Board for consecutive five-year periods.

However, a sublease that the county entered into with the Florida House Foundation Inc. to carry out the structure’s mission will end on July 9 of this year. That sublease was signed on July 10, 2012 and renewed on April 21, 2017, the staff report noted.

Details of the Business Industry Association proposal

A Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association graphic, included in correspondence with county leaders, shows how the Florida House could be placed on part of the Northwest Quad. That proposal preceded county plans for a new Planning and Development Services building on the site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As for the offer that prompted the discussion that Commissioner Detert requested: In June 2021, Jon Mast, CEO of the Business Industry Association, sent a letter to commission Chair Alan Maio, proposing to buy one of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields, where the MSBIA would like to relocate the Florida House.

He proposed the Northwest Quad as the preferred site. However, a fire station stands on part of that property, and the commission already has approved plans there, as well, for a “One Stop” office building to combine all of the staff members and services of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.

Mast wrote in his June 2021 letter that it is the vision of his organization that, on the Quad, the Florida House “could be further developed by the Building Industry Institute as a home for a whole host of various construction and sustainability educational programming, along with apprenticeship education, new licensure education and other continuing-education opportunities for the industry.”

In a separate document, Mast explained that the Building Industry Institute is a new nonprofit that the MSBIA was creating “to provide for education for those wishing to learn about the construction trades, including green building and sustainability. The organization will have its mission focused on encouraging building practices through outreach, education, research, and technical assistance on sustainable communities,” including facilitating building trades education for “pre-high school through post-high school students.”

Teresa Mast. File image

On Feb. 8, Teresa Mast, a member of the board of directors of the MSBIA, appeared before the County Commission during its morning Open to the Public comment period. She asked the board members to go ahead and agree to the proposal that Jon Mast — who is her husband — presented to them last year.

“MSBIA and its members have played a significant role in its creation and ongoing maintenance” of the Florida House, she said.

With the Building Industry Institute having been established, Teresa Mast continued, that nonprofit and the MSBIA would be able to do more for the Florida House “than its previous custodians.”

She reminded the commissioners that, in October 2020, they voted unanimously to approve a conservation easement over the Southwest, Southeast and Northeast Quads, in collaboration with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which is based in Osprey, and the Sarasota Audubon Society.

That easement gives priority to civic, educational and recreational buildings on those Quads, Mast pointed out.

The Southwest Quad, she said, “would be the perfect resting spot for the Florida House building, as well as the Building Industry Institute.” There, she continued, workforce and green/sustainable educational programs could be offered.

That location also is ideal, Mast added, because it would be adjacent to the new Planning and Development Services structure.

If the county would sell the Florida House building to the MSBIA and the Building Industry Institute, Mast continued, the two organizations would assume all of the costs associated with rezoning the parcel to Industrial, Light Manufacturing and Warehousing (ILW) “to facilitate the office and multi-office and event space required to carry out our mission.”

Moreover, Mast told the commissioners, “This would further extend our relationship to our community and its economic health.”

Rebutting the proposal

Amber Whittle addresses the commissioners on Feb. 23. News Leader image

Two weeks alter, at another regular meeting of the commission, Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota, appeared before the board during a morning session of Open to the Public.

“The Florida House is really a Sarasota County treasure, the way that Mote is,” she told the commissioners.

“We’ve had a 30-year partnership with the county and with the School Board,” she pointed out.

Just in the past year, Whittle continued, “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 has had “$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, which dates to 1994.

Ross, the former Florida House director, followed Whittle to the podium that day. First, he explained that he founded his company, Eco$mart, in 1993.

In his 29 years of working with the Florida House, Ross added, 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. “And now they want to be the educational arm about sustainable development? They’re an industry [group] that supports industry.”

Sarasota School District seeks to ‘secure ownership’ of Florida House building

Following Teresa Mast’s comments on Feb. 8, the County Commission directed County Administrator Lewis to have staff prepare the new report on the Florida House. The board specifically asked for an overview of the status of the facility, details about the lease, and future plans for the Southwest Quad.

A March 2021 graphic shows the Quads parcels next to the Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff report prepared for the commission after Jon Mast offered his proposal already had explained that the lease dates to July 11, 2007. Since September 2020, that report continued, the board of The Florida House Institute has expressed an interest in continuing that sublease with the county. In 2019, the report noted, The Florida House Institute “entered into a strategic partnership” with the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Southface Institute “with an aligned mission, local experience, and national stature.”

The Florida House Institute (FHI) is maintaining the Florida House and operating programs and services in accord with its sublease with the county, the second, March 14 staff report said. “To the best of the County’s knowledge, FHI is in compliance with the terms and conditions articulated in the Sublease Agreement.”

County Administrator Lewis did tell Commissioner Detert on April 12 that members of the county’s General Services Department staff had begun an assessment of the Florida House. “Our people are not in that building every day,” he pointed out.

The March 14 report further noted that, on March 2, Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan W. Asplen III sent Lewis a letter saying that the school district “is ardently interested in keeping the structure in its existing location … Furthermore, 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 local community, and beyond.”

These are features on the Southface Sarasota website, showing facets of the Florida House’s educational programs. Image courtesy of Southface Sarasota

Along with the Suncoast Technical College students engaging in hands-on training at the facility, Asplen pointed out, the Florida House has facilitated other educational opportunities. Among them are the following, he wrote:

  • On-site learning experiences “for Suncoast Technical College’s special needs Culinary program students and the college’s Digital Arts program students.”
  • On-site learning experiences for environmental science students of the nearby Suncoast Polytechnical High School.
  • “On-site experiential learning for New College of Florida students.”

Asplen added, “Sarasota County Schools is committed to maximizing everyopportunity that presents itself for the benefit of our students and school communities. Securing the ownership of the Florida House would significantly streamline our existing efforts to ensure all students are able to engage in high-quality STEM programming related to sustainability, agriculture, construction, and horticulture, among other areas of focus.”

In regard to future plans for the Southwest Quad, the March 14 staff report noted that the 10.3-acre parcel does have a developable area, but “the Conservation Easement does not allow for a private, non-governmental, or third-party organization or office use.”

5 thoughts on “Future of Florida House to be focus of County Commission discussion no later than May, county administrator says”

  1. The Building Industry Association’s proposal to move the Florida House to the NW Quad seems less about “education” than about marketing, staging events, making public land into a private space to advertise the Sarasota / Manatee Builders whose entire industry is more about erasing “green” than being it.

  2. What would possess the county, or a member of the appointed body euphemistically known as the “Planning Commission,” to now consider rezoning a parcel to ILW (Industrial, Light Manufacturing, Warehousing) that was dedicated as a Conservation Easement in the care of the Conservation Foundation and of Sarasota Audubon to act as a buffer for the Celery Fields?

  3. When the Florida House was moved from its original location on Proctor Rd to its current location on Beneva in approximately 2007, it was substantially rebuilt under the direction of Jon Lambie. Jon secured donations from various local companies and they were installed by a host of volunteers, including me. MSBIA was never seen or mentioned during that time. More recently the FH was used to teach STEM to Sarasota County 5th graders under a grant from Toyota Corp. It was a wonderful program and well received until the grant expired.

  4. Moving Florida House again is idiotic. It is ideally located for continuing it’s educational mission on Sarasota County School land and in and among county school buildings offering environmental and sustainable STEM education. The county should offer the building to the School Board “for just consideration” and terminate the lease with the School Board.
    If a second new Green education and demonstration location by the celery fields is wished by the MSBIA they could be the philanthropic arm donating funds to the county to make a collaborative county-run facility that would also hold offices for the County Extension office on the SE Quad, next to the already planned unified “Planning and Development Services Department” on the SW Quad. MSBIA should work with Florida House / SouthFace and the County and UF/IFAS County Extension office, to achieve this.

  5. Politics and developers are destroying a hard-won successful, sustainable building and program. The County should ask the school district to extend the lease.

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