Commissioner Moran points out that $900-a-month lease is for property that could be worth more than $800,000 on the tax rolls
Sarasota County commissioners voiced frustration this week that county staff is not moving fast enough to identify every potential parcel the county can sell to improve its fiscal health.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — who did not officially become administrator until mid-January — told the board members on Feb. 13 that staff is “going through a more in-depth version of what was done last year on the surplus property [issue].” Every piece of property that the county is not using is being scrutinized to determine whether it might be needed in the future, he said, or whether it should be advertised for sale.
“When will we see that report?” Commissioner Charles Hines asked.
“I don’t have a date today,” Lewis replied. “I think the last big remaining department is [Public] Utilities.” After the process has been completed, he continued, he will receive a report and then staff will set a date for a presentation to the board.
“This has really been something that we have been looking for for a couple of years,” Hines pointed out.
Later, Hines indicated that the result of the process would be a factor in Lewis’ annual review. “I hate to kind of say it that way,” Hines added, “but this is nothing new” he added of the board’s pressing for the past couple of years for a comprehensive surplus property review.
As the commissioners have intensified their focus on balancing future budgets, Hines and Commissioners Michael Moran and Alan Maio emphasized on Feb. 13, selling land the county has no use for is one way to ease the fiscal stress.
“And if staff doesn’t know what we want to do [with a piece of property],” Hines said, “just ask us.”
Moran initiated the Feb. 13 discussion after pulling an item from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters. Staff had recommended the one-year extension of a lease of 1.8 acres of county property in Nokomis to NRC Corp., which does business as Mama Leone’s Restaurant. The county land, located at 2350 N. Tamiami Trail in Nokomis.
Though the board members ultimately voted unanimously to renew the lease through Jan. 8, 2019, they peppered staff with questions about the history of the site and — as Moran put it — “[why] we have a piece of property that’s arguably worth in the range of 1 million bucks on U.S. 41 … and we’re getting $900 a month [in] rent on it.”
Past and present
About four years ago, the county declared the 1.8-acre section of the site “temporary surplus to county needs,” Lin Kurant, manager of the county’s Real Estate Services Department, told the commissioners. The Public Utilities Department, she said, “has a major lift station” on the northerly 1.4 acres of the site. The county has been leasing the remaining 1.8 acres to Mama Leone’s Restaurant for use as a parking lot.
In discussions with staff in December 2017, Kurant continued, the owners of Mama Leone’s indicated they had a desire to purchase the 1.8 acres. “However, I have not received anything to-date” following up on that, Kurant added.
When Moran asked whether the county is marketing the 1.8 acres for sale, Kurant replied, “No, we’re not.”
“What I’m struggling with,” Moran began, is that the highest and best use market value of the property is $823,000.
Based on his reading of the lease, NRC Corp. had not even completed all the improvements to the 1.8-acre segment that it had agreed to in the most recent lease amendment, Moran said.
A Feb. 13 staff memo pointed out that the original lease — signed on Dec. 9, 2014 — “required Tenant to design and construct a parking lot which would include lighting and a [stormwater] drainage system.” A 2016 amendment to the lease, the memo continued, “allowed for a parking area which did not require lighting and [stormwater] drainage system as the cost to make the improvements was more than Tenant had anticipated.”
On Oct. 27, 2016, the county did issue NRC Corp. a permit to construct a vehicle parking area, which was completed, the memo noted.
“I’m looking for a comprehensive discussion of what the long-range plan for this property is,” Moran told Kurant on Feb. 13.
“I’m familiar with this piece of property,” Commissioner Maio interjected at that point. The owners had approached him, Maio said, and he had immediately directed them to Lewis, Kurant and Scott Schroyer, director of the Public Utilities Department.
Maio added that the owners indicated to him that they did not want to pursue any significant initiatives, such as developing a site concept plan and a stormwater design, until after they owned the land. Maio said he believed Lewis had told them that they could not purchase the land outright from the county; the property would have to be put up for sale, with anyone entitled to make an offer on it.
“It has been de facto surplus property,” Maio continued.
That parcel is one of those under review as part of the department-wide process to identify surplus lands, Lewis confirmed.
Moran asked why the county initially acquired the property.
Schroyer responded that a larger utilities facility operated on the site a number of years ago. The lift station, he added, will need to remain in place, he added, regardless of what the board wishes to do with the other part of the property.
When the lease came up for renewal a couple of years ago, Schroyer continued, he suggested the county not sell the land at that time, because he felt it might be appropriate to construct a small-scale Utilities Department service center there. “We wanted to make sure we had a better strategic plan” before deciding on the future of the site, he added. Subsequently, he and his staff have come to the realization that another site, on Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice, would be more appropriate for the use he had envisioned for the 1.8 acres, Schroyer said.
Regarding the in-depth review Lewis had mentioned, Schroyer added, “We’re aggressively going through an exercise right now. … It’s a little bit daunting, quite honestly, for Public Utilities,” because of the number of parcels the department owns.
When Moran asked how long the county has owned the property, Schroyer replied that he was not certain. (Schroyer has been with the county slightly more than three years.)
“This is just steeped with bureaucratic grind,” Moran said, pointing out that it had taken years for the commission to hold a discussion on what to do with the property.
Maio then noted that, before he was elected to the commission in 2014, he recalled discussions about the county’s need to hold onto the land for a while because of complaints nearby residents had lodged regarding odors from the lift station. County staff took steps to ameliorate the problems, Maio continued, “and I don’t think we’ve had any complaints from residents in a long, long time.”
At that point, Moran asked whether staff saw any impediment, based on the terms of the lease, to marketing the 1.8 acres for the highest and best use. “I don’t want us waiting until the end of this lease,” he added, if staff needs to take some action to make that possible.
Kurant replied that the property is zoned Office Professional and Institutional. To market the property at its highest and best use, she said, staff would need to have it rezoned Commercial General or Residential Multi-Family-3. Only after the rezoning would the land have the potential value of $823,000, she said.
If the board wanted to authorize staff to initiate the rezoning, staff would pursue that, she added.
Because of the lift station, County Administrator Lewis explained, it might take longer to put the property on the market, as the parcel would need to be divided first.
However, Lewis stressed, the intent of the high-level review of potential surplus lands is to be able to get them sold and on the tax rolls for the highest and best use.
“That is exactly what I am looking for,” Moran told him, “and I appreciate it. … I’m not interested in having an Easter egg hunt” for surplus lands during every board meeting.
“Now we’re in a good market,” Commissioner Hines added. “We need to have this conversation continuously,” he said, about land staff has identified that the county could sell.
Commissioner Maio suggested that if the Nokomis property needs to be subdivided and rezoned, staff should start work on that right away. If staff is too busy to handle the rezoning, he added, staff should hire a planner listed in the county’s approved “library” of consultants to handle such work.
Moran finally made the motion to approve the lease renewal through Jan. 8, 2019, and Hines seconded it. Then the motion passed unanimously, almost 22 minutes after Moran launched the discussion.