County administrator tells County Commission that, probably in early 2022, staff will present options for future of Florida House site
Sarasota County commissioners’ objection to a proposal of the board of The Florida House Institute in Sarasota has led to the potential of the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA) purchasing the educational facility.
Moreover, the MSBIA has proposed buying a portion of the county’s Northwest “Quad,” next to the Celery Fields, and moving the house to that location.
“This parcel would be the perfect resting spot for the Florida House,” Jon Mast, CEO of the MSBIA, wrote commission Chair Alan Maio in a June 7 letter.
“With the Conservation Foundation having been gifted a perpetual conservation easement on the remainder of the Quads property,” Mast continued, “this remaining parcel is a logical location for The Florida House, which was the first green demonstration house built in the United States.”
In October 2020, the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the 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.
In fact, on July 14, the commissioners voted for the second time — as required by county regulations — to rezone the three Quads from Open Use Rural to Government Use. In conjunction with the rezoning, county staff created a series of stipulations that will limit how the parcels can be developed, including certain architectural requirements for any structures.
The first public hearing on the rezoning was conducted on June 9.
For years, residents and environmental groups had advocated for preservation of the Quads from any uses that would be in conflict with the Celery Fields. The latter county-owned property has become an internationally known bird-watching destination, though it originated as a major county stormwater project.
Both Jeanne Dubi, president of the Sarasota Audubon Society, and Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation, had conducted discussions with the commissioners prior to the October 2020 vote, encouraging them to ensure that only passive uses would be authorized for the Quads. The goal, both women indicated, was not to disturb the wildlife that populates the Celery Fields, especially during the height of the annual bird migrations.
Several years ago, when county board discussions began about the future of the Quads, Chair Maio maintained that the Northwest Quad should be remain available for more intensive development. Fire Station 8 sits on part of that parcel. (Its address is 840 Apex Road.) Therefore, Maio has suggested, it would not make sense to preserve that Quad from uses that would be compatible with the fire station.
In his June 7 letter to the commissioners, Mast of the MSBIA wrote that it is the vision of his organization that, with the relocation of The Florida House to the Northwest Quad, the facility “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.”
Mast indicated in a separate document that the Building Industry Institute is a new nonprofit that the MSBIA is 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.”
“Further,” Mast added in his letter to Maio, the location of The Florida House “next door to the County’s new fire station [opens up opportunities for] workforce creation and collaboration with our first responders, which further extends our relationship to our community and its economic health.”
“We propose that the County sell the Florida House building to the MSBIA and the Building Industry Institute, with the partnership committing to move it at our cost from Sarasota County School Board District property within three years,” Mast continued.
If the county allowed the MSBIA and the Building Institute to buy part of the Northwest Quad, Mast added, the two organizations “would assume all costs” associated with rezoning the site to Industrial, Light Manufacturing and Warehousing “to facilitate the office and multi-office and event space required to carry out our mission.”
Vexation over leasing issues
As Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out during a board discussion on May 18, the Sarasota County School Board does own the Beneva Road site of The Florida House. The county has a lease for the property that will end in 2027, he noted.
That lease dates to July 11, 2007, according to a board report that the commissioners requested of staff on May 18. The goal, the June 21 report said, was to allow for “an educational example of a house (Florida House Building) that would demonstrate the benefits of residential sustainability of energy, water conservation and water quality.”
Additionally, the report pointed out, on July 10, 2012, the county entered into a sublease with the Florida House Foundation of Sarasota Inc. to carry out those goals and objectives. That sublease ends on July 9, 2022, the report said.
Since September 2020, the report continued, the board of The Florida House Institute has expressed an interest in continuing that sublease. 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.”
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.”
On May 25, the board report said, county administrative personnel sent a letter to Charles C. Reith, president of the board of the Florida House Institute, informing him that the county would not consent to the proposals in that 2020 letter.
Contentions and counter arguments
On June 8, Reith appeared before the commissioners during the Open to the Public session at the start of that regular meeting.
“The Florida House is in great shape and actively serving the community,” he told the commissioners. It had been closed during much of the pandemic, he continued, but preparations were underway for its reopening.
Alluding to a May 18 comment from Maio, which indicated that the institute was in financial difficulty, Reith pointed out, “Our economics are solid,” thanks to grants and the opportunity for future funding gifts.
Reith acknowledged that the institute had struggled with its financial situation in the past. In response, he continued, during the pandemic, all the board members “gave deeply from our personal assets to provide the tens of thousands of dollars to maintain the facility … We board members and our donors are deeply dedicated to the Florida House mission of service to the community.”
“For 35 years,” Reith pointed out, “The Florida House has been Sarasota’s beacon of inspired residential design, responsible water management, STEM education [and] green tech workforce development.”
During the County Commission’s May 18 discussion, Commissioner Nancy Detert talked about the relatively new superintendent of the school district, Brennan Asplen, saying, “I find him to be very congenial and user-friendly and cooperative …” She suggested that county staff might be able to work out a deal with the district to relocate the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension program (UF/IFAS) from its offices at the county’s Twin Lakes Park to The Florida House site. “I think that’s a very good use of the location, and, maybe, they could work with students.”
The site, after all, she noted, is next to the original campus of the Suncoast Technical College, which stands at the intersection of Beneva and Proctor roads.
Maio then acknowledged the interest that the MSBIA already had expressed in The Florida House. “They might be a very appropriate tenant.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Commissioner Moran responded.
In the June board report, staff listed three options:
- Since the UF/IFAS staff members “have outgrown” their Twin Parks space, “The Florida House building could potentially provide some of the needed office space, contingent upon an evaluation of the building by the County’s Facilities [Division] staff.” That option potentially would include relocating the structure, the report added.
- Prior to the expiration of the county lease with The Florida House Institute, “the County could solicit proposals from outside agencies to operate the Florida House in a manner consistent with the County’s Lease Agreement with the School Board.”
- The county could list The Florida House building for sale, with the condition that the buyer relocate it. “This option,” the report explained, “would necessitate the subsequent termination” of the county lease with the School Board prior to its June 30, 2027 expiration date.”
The report then said that county administrative staff recommended that the commission decline to extend the sublease with The Florida House Institute beyond its expiration on July 9, 2022.
During the commission’s regular meeting on July 13, Chair Maio acknowledged the letter from Mast of the MSBIA about the Northwest Quad option. When he asked County Administrator Lewis about the status of The Florida House issues, Lewis replied that staff had notified the institute board of the decision not to renew the sublease. “Probably sometime early in ,” Lewis added, staff would come back to the commissioners with options for the site.
“We needed to put that into the record,” Maio responded.