Principal of private, mostly outdoor elementary school seeking approval to relocate to site next to Celery Fields in eastern part of county

Mangrove School application to be heard by Planning Commission on July 20

On the evening of July 20, the Sarasota County Planning Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on an application for a school that would be situated next to the Celery Fields.

That hearing will be on the same agenda with one regarding proposed changes to the plans for the mixed-use Siesta Promenade project, in the northwest quadrant of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41, county documents show.

As explained in the application that county Planning Services staff received in late December 2022, the Mangrove School of Sarasota would be located on the northern 3.14 acres of the parcel located at 7015 Palmer Blvd. The school is seeking a Special Exception necessary “to create a campus that supports the school’s curriculum of passing on naturalist skills, regenerative agriculture techniques, homesteading, native plants, sustainability practices and reverence for what supported nature, long before humans cultivated the land,” the application explains.

The agent representing the school is Joel Freedman of Sarasota, whose firm is Freedman Consulting & Development LLC.

The agenda for the July 20 Planning Commission meeting likely will not be available until a week ahead of that date, based on staff’s typical timeline for publishing Planning Commission documents. The sessions begin at 5 p.m. The hearing will take place in the County Commission Chambers of the Administration Center standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

As Freedman explained in a Dec. 12, 2022 letter to the county Planning Services staff, the Special Exception is needed to allow a private school on the property in the eastern part of the county, which is zoned Open Use Rural (OUR). He pointed out that the Mangrove School has leased approximately 3.144 acres of the northern portion of the parcel located at 7015 Palmer Blvd. A single-family home stands on the southern portion of the site, he added.

The owner of the parcel located at 7015 Palmer Blvd. is Linda R. Rosaire, the application said.

Center Road is adjacent to the proposed school site. The Celery Fields, the county’s major stormwater project that has become an internationally known bird-watching destination, is immediately west of Center Road.

During the formal county Development Review Coordination process, during which county staff members provide comments on applications to ensure that the proposals comply with all county regulations and policies, a representative of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department suggested that the Mangrove School “provide connections along Palmer Boulevard to support [pedestrians’ and bicyclists’] access [to the] Celery Fields and Sarasota Audubon Nature Center.”

An environmental assessment of the Palmer Boulevard property, undertaken last year by ecoGENESIS LLC of Sarasota and included with the application, says that the site “was primarily used as pasture for the existing owner’s livestock. The Site is bordered to the north by an entrance roadway to Big Cat Habitat and improved pasture further north,” with the Big Cat Habitat wildlife sanctuary “and associated parking areas” to the east, that report adds.

If the County Commission ultimately approves the Special Exception, the application indicates, Mangrove School Principal Erin Melia plans to buy the school site of the Palmer Boulevard property from Rosaire. The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office said the market value of the entire parcel was $783,800 in 2022. A single-family home on the southern portion of the land was built in 2009, that record notes.

A zoning determination and details about the school

In November 2020, Freedman continued in the application, Melia received a determination from County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson, “verifying that the property [proposed for the school] was a nonconforming lot of record and, as such could be developed [in] compliance with the [Open Use Estate] zoning district regulations.”

The referenced letter — included with the application materials — said that OUR allows for one dwelling unit per 10 acres. A representative of the owner of the site reviewed with Zoning Administration staff documents “that supported the [designation of] the [property] as a nonconforming lot of record,” the letter added. Therefore, the letter continued, according to Article 15, Section 124-283 of the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances, the property can be developed in a manner that conforms “with the most similar district of the same use,” which would be OUE; that zoning district allows one dwelling unit per 5 acres.

The letter added, “The OUE District allows for elementary, middle or high schools with the approval of a Special Exception by the County Commission through the public hearing process. Should you desire to pursue this endeavor,” the letter pointed out, “this process is handled through our Planning Services Division.

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

Operating in Pine Shores Estates, which coincidentally happens to be adjacent to the Siesta Promenade site, the Mangrove School of Sarasota “fosters a capacity for self-knowledge that is grounded in a lifelong love of learning,” the school website explains. “Our inspiring, comprehensive learning environments, trained teachers, and committed, active parents and volunteers, awaken the students’ innate aptitude to be well-versed in practical, artistic, social, and academic skills,” the website adds.

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, it appears that 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.

In the application, Freedman explained, “The campus will include outdoor (covered from sun/rain) areas for each student grouping, along with innovative features that allow rainwater collection, compost building, space for homesteading skill building. There will be modular [classrooms] on the site as well.”

The students will range in age from prekindergartners to eighth-graders, he continued. “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 school has 12 to 15 staff members, he added. 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.”

The students are dropped off and picked up at the school, he continued, noting that car-pooling is common.

On March 3, 2022, Freedman also pointed out, the county-required Neighborhood Workshop was conducted on the proposal, so owners and residents of nearby property could learn about the plans and ask questions. However, the minutes of that session — prepared by Freedman — said, “No one from the public requested to join the meeting,” which was held via Zoom. “A presentation of the proposal was made,” regardless, the minutes pointed out.