Mangrove School plans win County Commission approval for relocation near Celery Fields

Private, mostly outdoor school also would be near Big Cat Habitat

This graphic shows the portion of a Palmer Boulevard parcel (outlined in yellow) where the Mangrove School would be located. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With no one having signed up to speak on the proposal, the Sarasota County Commission last week unanimously approved plans for a private, mostly outdoor school on property near the Celery Fields and Big Cat Habitat in the eastern part of the county.

In late July, the county’s Planning Commission voted to recommend that the County Commission take that action.

The item on the County Commission’s Sept. 12 agenda was listed as a Presentation Upon Request, a distinction usually accorded non-controversial issues. No board member asked for staff or applicant comments before Commissioner Joe Neunder made the motion to approve the project, and Commissioner Mark Smith seconded it.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, Erin Melia, principal of the Mangrove School of Sarasota, had requested a Special Exception to allow the school to operate on approximately 3.144 acres on the northern portion of the parcel located at 7015 Palmer Blvd., in the northeast quadrant of the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Center Road. The owner of the property, which comprises about 7.5 acres, is Linda R. Rosaire, according to the application filed with the county. The school would lease the site.

Joel Freedman, whose eponymous consulting firm is located in Sarasota, represented the school in the application process. He explained that he had obtained a determination from county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson, confirming that, with the granting of the Special Exception, the school could operate on that site, which is zoned Open Use Rural.

The students will range from prekindergartners to eighth-graders, Freedman explained in the application. “There are approximately 75 students that will be on the campus at one time when the school relocates from its current campus on Crestwood Avenue [in Pine Shores Estates]. Eventually the school hopes to have approximately 150 students,” Freedman wrote.

The Pine Shores Estates community is located just east of Siesta Key and west of U.S. 41.

The school’s website homepage says, “No Child Left Inside,” followed by this line: “School Reimagined: Nurturing through Nature, Service, and Meaningful Experience.”

The school has 12 to 15 staff members, Freedman added in the application. It operates Monday through Friday from September through May, opening at 8:15 a.m. and closing at 4:30 p.m.

“Please note dismissal time varies,” Freedman pointed out: 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. “The varied dismissal times [allow] for smooth operation with approximately 25% of the students leaving at the various times.”

During her remarks to the planning commissioners in July, Principal Melia explained that the Mangrove School has been in operation since 2001. The curriculum, she said, focuses on sustainability, regenerative agriculture and nature. Lesson plans, she indicated, are varied so as to be age-appropriate. For example, Melia noted, the younger students learn about the local flora and fauna and how to be together, “just in a natural setting, so they’re learning … a reverence for nature …”

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for the Mangrove School. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The older children, she continued, learn more abstract ideas. They also focus on species interaction and the coastal areas.

The vision for the school at the new site, Melia pointed out, is for it to be part of “what truly is the crown jewel of conservation in Sarasota” — the Celery Fields. “It was once all sawgrass, then farms,” she added of the Celery Fields property. “We would like to contribute to that with various plantings.”

Additionally, she said, the children would learn about the importance of filtering pollutants out of stormwater, as well as about giving back to the community.

The Binding Development Concept Plan submitted with the application shows four portable classroom structures measuring 24 feet by 36 feet south of a parking lot and a one-way drop-off/pick-up lane. Additionally, 14 “gazebo learning areas,” which would measure 16 feet by 24 feet, would be south of the portables. A minimum distance of 30 feet is called for between the gazebos, the plan says.

The modular units will be only one story in height, Freedman told the planning commissioners.