Myrtle Street project holdup the focus of ongoing negotiations with Seminole Gulf Railway, city and county staff say

The railway’s attorney indicates the issues should not be difficult to resolve

Phase 2 of the Myrtle Street improvements is underway. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Phase 2 of the Myrtle Street improvements is underway. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Representatives of both the City and County of Sarasota say they have been unable to make progress in negotiations with Seminole Gulf Railway (SGR) regarding the need to acquire railroad right of way needed to complete improvements underway on Myrtle Street, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Yet, the railroad’s attorney told the News Leader this week he sees no reason for a holdup in the county’s planning for the construction of a new railroad crossing on the street to accommodate the project. Brian Patchen, whose practice is in Miami Lakes, said during a June 15 telephone interview that the county would need to pay for the engineering design and the construction of the new crossing, although SGR would undertake the actual work for safety purposes. “I know the folks [in Sarasota] want to get that crossing completed,” he added. “I hope we can get this thing rolling.”

The city and county have been collaborating on the street upgrades for the past several years.

During the County Commission’s April 27 mid-year financial review, when Spencer Anderson, a division manager in the county’s Capital Projects Department, was presenting information concerning a variety of capital projects proposed for the next five fiscal years, Commissioner Carolyn Mason told him, “The [railroad] crossing on Myrtle is shameful. It’s shameful that traffic goes down that road and crosses [it]. It is bad.”

She added that she had talked about the situation with Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer. “It’s worse than any of those on this list,” she pointed out, referring to a chart Anderson had shown the board, listing railroad-crossing projects that would be in the county’s 2017-2021 Capital Improvements Plan. Mason added, “I just needed to say that for the record.”

Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo

Anderson replied that county Transportation Department staff had made “a little bit of headway” with SGR about the crossing. If the company would allow it, he continued, staff would undertake some repairs there.

“When that happens, folks will have a block party, celebrating,” Mason told him.

Commissioner Christine Robinson then asked whether the board could take any action to assist.

“It’s the railroad,” Mason replied, though she conceded that it was difficult for her to make her constituents understand that.

Robinson said she would be willing to ask for specific board action if Mason knew of any directive that might ameliorate the situation.

“No,” Mason told her.

Subsequent to that discussion, on May 20, Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw and City Manager Tom Barwin met with SGR representatives at the railway’s offices in Fort Myers. According to an email exchange earlier this month between Barwin and county staff, the SGR officials indicated the county had filed a lawsuit against the company. That is not true, Anderson confirmed for Barwin in a June 2 email. “We (transportation, capital projects, real property and legal) are unaware of any active legal action against SGR,” Anderson wrote, referring to a number of county divisions.

Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, told The Sarasota News Leader this week that city staff asked SGR to provide a copy of what its representatives referenced on May 20, but the city as of June 14 was continuing to await a response.

Brian Patchen. Image from his law firm website
Brian Patchen. Image from his law firm website

Patchen told the News Leader the legal matter relates to county acquisition of SGR right of way by eminent domain. As required under state statute, he pointed out, the county notified the railroad in January 2015 that it planned to use eminent domain in conjunction with the Myrtle Street project.

Florida State Statute 73.015 says that before an eminent domain proceeding is brought, “the condemning authority must attempt to negotiate in good faith with the fee owner of the parcel to be acquired, must provide the fee owner with a written offer and, if requested a copy of the appraisal upon which the offer is based, and must attempt to reach an agreement regarding the amount of compensation to be paid for the parcel.”

In compliance with state law after receipt of the county notice, Patchen told the News Leader, he filed a response providing a business damage claim from SGR. The county has yet to file an eminent domain lawsuit, he added.

In a June 8 email to SGR, Barwin asked for clarification about the legal matter, noting, “Obviously we have a disconnect or communications issue somewhere.” After SGR cleared up the matter, he added, city staff would attempt to set up an on-site meeting with representatives of the railroad, city staff “and Sarasota County key staff to actually look at the best way to address the remaining challenges.”

The News Leader spoke with Sandy Leathers, SGR’s real estate manager, by telephone on June 15, but he declined to comment on the record. He directed the News Leader to Patchen.

On June 13, Barwin responded to another email from Harmer, agreeing to go ahead with the meeting of staff members. That is planned for June 28, the email says, and it will include Brownman; Thai Tran, a program manager in the county’s Capital Projects Mobility Department; county Transportation Manager Carolyn Eastwood; and Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham.

Update on the improvements

An aerial view shows Myrtle Street between Central and Orange avenues, with Booker High School at the lower left. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows Myrtle Street between Central and Orange avenues, with Booker High School at the lower left. Image from Google Maps

On May 27, Tran provided a written update on the project to improve Myrtle Street between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, which Harmer sent to Barwin.

Tran noted that Phase 1 of the project, which entailed the design and construction of an eastbound turn lane at U.S. 301 and sidewalks on both sides of Myrtle from U.S. 301 to the bridge over the Whitaker Bayou canal, west of U.S. 301, had been completed.

Phase 2, he continued, includes the design of an array of improvements from U.S. 41 to west of U.S. 301, but sidewalks will be constructed only on the south side of the road. This phase also encompasses street lighting and some stormwater work.

Because of the railroad right of way challenges, Tran pointed out in the May 27 memo, the project was split into three segments:

  • 2A: U.S. 41 to Central Avenue.
  • 2B: Central Avenue to Orange Avenue (including the railroad crossing replacement).
  • 2C: Orange Avenue to U.S. 301.

Tran noted that the right of way acquisition is complete for segment 2A but not for segment 2B.

“Coordination continues with Seminole Gulf Railway (SGR) regarding easements for drainage and railroad crossing improvements,” he added. “County staff met with SGR on February 26, 2016. Revised plans and permit applications have been submitted to SGR,” he wrote.

The drainage matter involves a small portion of SGR property that includes a spur, Patchen, the SGR attorney told the News Leader this week. He characterized that as a minor issue, saying, “The engineers should be able to work that out.”

Tran then noted in the memo, “ROW acquisition for segment 2C is partially complete, under contract, or proposed to be acquired via Eminent Domain.”

In regard to construction: Tran wrote, “Based on challenges with [right of way] acquisitions noted above, staff has proceeded to advance the work on segment 2A. The construction of segment 2A, sidewalk and lighting on the south side only, is now underway. A Guarantee Maximum Price (GMP) contract of $1,228,830.60 with Halfacre Construction was awarded by the [County Commission] on February 17, 2016.” The preconstruction meeting was held on March 7, he continued, and construction started on April 1. The schedule calls for segment 2A to be completed in the fall.

Phase 3, Tran wrote, entails construction of the remainder of the project: bike lanes, a sidewalk on the north side of the street and the stormwater improvements. “Although not currently funded,” he noted, an application has been submitted to the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, requesting the money.