More offers welcome for affordable housing plans on county property at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota, county commissioners say

Board members make it clear that they want to entertain other options as staff continues negotiations they authorized with Miami firm

A graphic shows the property at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Tuttle Avenue, with Myrtle Street to the north. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Following an Oct. 6 update by staff about a proposal for an affordable housing project with commercial development on a 114-acre county parcel in North Sarasota, other people have been “coming out of the woodwork” with interest in the same property, as Sarasota County Commission Chair Michael Moran put it on Nov. 4.

As a result, the board members have asked County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht to create a timeline that would allow for the submission of other unsolicited proposals that would meet the stipulations of a Florida Statute through which the earlier offer was made.

During the Nov. 4 discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio made it clear that the board members would want “apples-to-apples” details in new plans, so they could compare them to the proposal offered by Woodwater Investments of Miami.

On Oct. 6, the board members voted 4-1 to authorize staff to continue negotiating with Woodwater over facets of its plans for developing the property located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which the county purchased in 2013 as the site of a new regional park with ball fields.

Barron Channer is the founder and CEO of Woodwater Investments. Image from the firm’s website

Commissioner Nancy Detert cast the “No” vote, complaining that she had concerns about Barron Channer, the founder and CEO of Woodwater. She had been unable to find much about him in her research, she told her colleagues.

Woodwater approached staff about 18 months ago, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson noted during that early October discussion. Woodwater was operating under the guidelines of Florida Statute, 125.045, that involves economic development.

Detert indicated her desire to see a local developer plan an affordable housing project on the site, instead of a company from Miami. However, Commissioner Charles Hines stressed that — in spite of numerous board discussions regarding interest in selling county parcels for such initiatives — no local developer had come forward with an idea.

On Nov. 4, Moran pointed out that, following the Oct. 6 vote, he had received a “couple of real, material calls” about the parcel located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. He indicated that the callers had the “ability and means” to handle construction of a development there. His concern, he told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, was that, “in the interest of the taxpayers here,” that the county get “the most bang for the buck” for the land.

Lewis reminded Moran that staff has been continuing the negotiations with Woodwater, in accord with the Oct. 6 vote. He added that he believed the Office of the County Attorney would say, “that at some point, that has to be fully dispatched.” Still, Lewis noted, “You’re under no obligation to agree to what they ultimately offer,” especially if the proposal does not meet the terms the board members have set in regard to affordable housing.

This is a conceptual site plan for the proposed, mixed-use development on the property located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota, as proposed by Woodwater Investments of Miami. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If Woodwater did win county approval for its plans, Commissioner Maio responded, it would take approximately three years “before a shovel gets put in the ground.” The board would have to approve the rezoning of the site for the project, Maio pointed out, and then the firm would have to go through the normal development process, working with staff of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, before it could begin construction.

He also noted that, with the Woodwater plans having been offered to the county, “I thought we had finally, maybe, possibly, perhaps, rehabilitated our reputation for just being tough to deal with on selling property.”

Nonetheless, Maio continued, “I want to give everybody a fair shake. … I think we should put some sort of timeline” on the window for other proposals to be submitted.

He suggested a window ranging from 30 to 90 days, with any new proposals coming in under the provisions of the same state statute under which Woodwater has been working.

“I agree with Commissioner Moran,” Commissioner Detert said. “This was kind of an aberration. We’re forced to deal with this group,” and then the resulting publicity of the discussion made it appear “like it’s a done deal,” she added. “We’re making very little profit off of our purchase price from seven years ago, I think. … We can do waybetter than that.”

When Detert queried Assistant County Administrator Johnson on Oct. 6 about the price Woodwater has offered for the property, Johnson said the figure was $2.5 million; the county bought the parcel for $2.2 million.

A mix of views

This is the timeline Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson showed the commissioners on Oct. 6, in regard to negotiations with Woodwater Investments. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Nov. 4, Detert concurred with Maio’s recommendation that staff set a timeline for other proposals to be submitted. “I’d be willing to look to make a better profit off of that [parcel], if we’re selling it. … I have a lot of questions about the current offer on the table.”

Then Commissioner Hines told his colleagues, “Let me bring us back down memory lane a little bit.” The commission in 2013 agreed to purchase the site located at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and North Tuttle Avenue for a regional sports complex, he said. “I’ve received several angry calls from prior commissioners,” he added, who maintained that the board should not deviate from those plans, which included baseball, softball and soccer fields.

However, Hines continued, “My answer to them is we need all those, but we need affordable, workforce housing more …”

Hines further stressed that the board did not include the parcel on its surplus properties list. Therefore, he added, he found commissioners’ comments about making a profit on selling it to be “a little concerning …”

“We identified this property that could be used for greater public benefit,” Hines pointed out, and then staff received the Woodwater proposal. “I would never have voted to move [the property] from parkland ideas to affordable, workforce housing, if the idea was just to sell it and make a profit.”

Commissioner Michael Moran. File image

Chair Moran responded that, while the analogy was not the best, he found this situation similar to one in which a person has made an offer on a house that the seller has found reasonable. Then other people come forward, indicating surprise that the seller would take the offer; those other people say they are willing to pay the seller more.

He again voiced his desire to see a deal for the North Sarasota parcel that would net the county more profit, along with an affordable housing development.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler said he agreed with Moran. “This isn’t our money.”

Commissioner Maio then talked about the need for other offers to encompass details such as those staff has been working on with Woodwater, including timing for deposits and the number of affordable housing units that would be offered for rent to persons making specific amounts of the annual median income for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Since Woodwater also included plans to provide a grocery store and dining options in an area that has been described as a “food desert,” Maio continued, any new offers need to encompass the same types of services.

Commissioner Hines emphasized the need for new offers to include timelines for the construction of the affordable housing units, as well as the commercial facets of the development. He also called for any contract the commission ultimately agrees to with a firm to make it clear that the rezoning of the parcel at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way would have to be pursued within a specific time frame. Contingencies must be built into the final agreement, he added, to ensure the property would come back to the county if the developer failed to meet the dates for specific action.

Referencing the fact that the Nov. 4 meeting would be his last as a commissioner, Hines told his colleagues, “Be strong with this. We’re at an advantage in this situation. We own that property. It’s in a great location.”

Hines is stepping down from the board because of term limits.

Maio asked whether all of the facets of the Woodwater proposal are public records.

County Administrator Lewis replied that he believes they are.

After Moran talked about establishing a timeline for other proposals to be submitted, Lewis again stressed, “This was not a competitive procurement process.” Therefore, Lewis reiterated his earlier point: Anyone could submit a proposal to the county under the guidelines of the Florida Statute.

This is the Florida Statute under whose guidelines other offers may be submitted to county staff. Image courtesy Florida Senate

If staff received any other offers in that manner, Lewis continued, those would be presented to the board, just as the Woodwater proposal had been.

Still, Lewis added, “We have to deal with the [proposal] in front of us in a responsible manner.”

“If somebody thinks they have a better ‘Plan B,’” Moran said, “I think it’s clear … that we’re all ears.” All the details need to be in writing, including the amount of purchase price, he said, noting, “I think a third-grader could understand the intent here.”

Elbrecht responded that as long as new offers come in under the guidelines of the state statute, the commissioners would be within their rights to expect County Administration to present the proposals to them. “Everyone else would be treated in the same manner” as Woodwater, Elbrecht added.