Rainford, Moran lose out on proposal to allow county Fire Department to burn down Florida House in training exercise

Structure to be given to Sarasota County Schools, County Commission majority decides

This is a Southface Sarasota Facebook post about the closing of the Florida House in June 2022. The county had ended its agreement to allow the organization to operate out of the structure. Image from Facebook

Sarasota County Commissioners Mike Moran and Neil Rainford wanted to allow the Sarasota County Fire Department to burn it down — in a training exercise, Rainford indicated.

Nonetheless, the other three board members approved a motion that Commissioner Mark Smith made on April 23, calling for the county to turn over the Florida House to the Sarasota County Schools.

As county documents have explained, the Florida House was “the first green demonstration house in the country, [and it] welcomed thousands of visitors from around the world who were interested in using less fossil fuel and more healthy products in their homes and yards.”

Smith did stipulate in his motion that he and his colleagues did not want the transaction to entail any negotiations. He was referencing comments from Moran, indicating Moran’s expectation that negotiations would further delay the process of getting the Florida House out of the county’s possession.

Smith also pointed out that if the county demolished the structure during a fire training exercise, the county still would have to pay to restore the site, as specified in the county’s lease agreement with the School Board.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham estimated that demolition and restoration of the site would cost from $50,000 to $75,000. He did not offer an amended estimate after Rainford mentioned the Fire Department option.

Cunningham had introduced the agenda item during the regular commission meeting on April 23, providing a review of the timeline focused on the more recent history of the Florida House.

When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis whether he had had any recent communication from the School Board, indicating that its members would like for the district to take over the building, Lewis responded, “They had previously.” He was referring to letters he had received from the prior Superintendent Brennan W. Asplen III.

However, Lewis added, the current superintendent, Terry Connor, called him that morning, saying the School Board is interested in the house.

Demolition would entail the use of county funds, Cutsinger told his colleagues. He would prefer to let the school district have the house, Cutsinger said, unless the Fire Department was interested in making it the scene of a training exercise. “Somewhat joking,” Cutsinger characterized that last comment.

In April 2022, Southface Sarasota’s website offered these details about features of the Florida House. Image courtesy Southface Sarasota

After Smith made his motion, Cutsinger asked County Attorney Joshua Moye whether he thought the direction was sufficient to achieve the commission’s goal.

“I think it’s fine,” Moye responded, adding that he did not anticipate having to come back to the board members for any other action on the issue.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comment about the board’s decision, Superintendent Connor provided this statement in an April 24 email: “We are pleased with the decision made by the County Commission yesterday to transfer the Florida House structure to our school district. While the specific plans for the building are still in development, our primary focus will be enhancing our students’ educational experiences and opportunities.”

17 years and counting

In introducing the April 23 agenda item, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham ran through a timeline, starting with the School Board and the county entering into a 20-year lease for the site of the Florida House, which is 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota. It is just north of the Suncoast Technical College, which stands at the intersection of Proctor and Beneva roads.

In May 2021, Jon Mast, CEO of what was then the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (MSBIA) — it has transitioned into the Suncoast Builders Association — sent a letter to then-commission Chair Alan Maio, asking to take over the Florida House as an educational resource.

Mast also proposed moving the structure to one of the county’s Quad parcels near the Celery Fields Regional Stormwater Project, in the eastern part of the county. However, county plans for construction of a facility on the same Quad eliminated that site from consideration.

This is a letter that Jon Mast, CEO of what was then the MSBIA, sent to the County Commission on June 7, 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Nonetheless, the commissioners made clear their willingness to allow the building industry organization to take control of the Florida House.

Then, in late June 2022, after county staff had notified the Sarasota County Schools leadership of that decision, then-Superintendent Asplen informed county staff that the School Board had denied the request — as was its right, according to the terms of the lease.

On Sept. 6, 2022, the School Board voted to terminate its lease of the Florida House property to the county, giving the county the required year-long notice to remove the structure from the site and to restore the site.

Then, on Sept. 12, 2023, Commissioner Moran made a motion to direct County Administrator Lewis to work with the School Board and the MSBIA to transfer the structure to the MSBIA or another nonprofit of the MSBIA’s choosing. The latter language referenced the MSBIA’s efforts to create a new nonprofit organization, the Building Industry Institute ,“for the purpose of providing educational programs, workforce development, and the promotion of green/sustainable construction,” as MSBIA CEO Mast had informed the commissioners via letter in June 2021.

These slides show part of the Florida House timeline of recent years. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On March 5 — after several delays for various reasons, as The Sarasota News Leader has documented — an item placed on the commission’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters for the regular meeting that day called for the transfer of the Florida House to the MSBIA. However, Moran, as board chair this year, announced that that item had been removed from the agenda.

As the News Leader reported, on Feb. 28, schools Superintendent Connor sent a letter to County Administrator Lewis, advising him that “the School District has decided not to enter into a land lease agreement with the Suncoast Builders’ Association for the use of the Florida House. This decision was not made lightly but was determined based on the proposal’s alignment with our core mission and direct benefits to our students.”
As a result, Mast of Suncoast Builders asked county staff to remove the item from the March 5 agenda.

After completing his April 23 presentation of the background, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham provided the commissioners with the four options staff was recommending:

  • Seek a new lease agreement with the School Board to keep the Florida House on the Beneva Road site.
  • Enter into negotiations with the School Board regarding transfer of the building to the school district.
  • Demolish the structure.
  • Relocate the Florida House to another site.

Venting frustrations

As soon as Cunningham completed his presentation, Commissioner Rainford told his colleagues, “I don’t think it’s a good use of county resources to relocate [the Florida House].”

Commissioner Neil Rainford completes his motion to burn down the Florida House. News Leader image

Then he talked about how much of an investment the MSBIA had made in the structure, adding, “We were planning on using this facility to further the expansion of [instruction in] trades.”

Having watched recent School Board meetings, Rainford added that the members “seem to just want the building. … I would prefer it to be a temporary fire training facility.”

Commissioner Smith countered with the proposal to give the building to the School Board. Even though the technology in the structure would need to be updated, Smith said, the school district could use the facility for its own training purposes.

During public comments to the commissioners in late February 2022, Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota — the new entity managing the Florida House at the time — reported that just within the past year, “We’ve had over 2,200 hours” of hands-on training by students of the nearby Suncoast Technical College, who worked on the building’s plumbing, electrical, and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems. The students, she noted, also “got to work on cisterns, which they never would somewhere else.”

“We’ve done almost 100 tours” of the Florida House, Whittle continued.

Finally, she said, also over the previous year, the Florida House had received “$35,000 worth of in-kind donations,” including new PGT storm-resistant windows and new flooring.

The MSBIA’s leaders may say that that organization built the Florida House, Whittle added, but in looking back through the records, she found that the MSBIA had donated less than $5,000 to the Florida House in its entire history, which dated to 1994.

Another speaker who addressed the commission the same day — Matt Ross, a former Florida House director — explained that he founded his company, Eco$mart, in 1993.

In his 29 years of working with the Florida House, Ross added, he had “not seen the [MSBIA’s] presence at all.”

When the Florida House suffered through “lean times” in the early 2000s, Ross continued, “Where was the builders’ association? They weren’t there.”

The MSBIA has been opposed to the very green-building standards that the Florida House demonstrates, Ross stressed. “And now they want to be the educational arm about sustainable development? They’re an industry [group] that supports industry.”

During the April 23 discussion, Commissioner Joe Neunder concurred with Smith’s suggestion to turn over the house to the school district. “I think we have other things to deal with at the moment,” Neunder said. “I’m happy to let it go.”

Commissioner Cutsinger voiced hope that the district would use the Florida House for career training for people interested in the construction business.

Moran makes a point during the April 23 discussion. News Leader image

“I’m a hard vote for Option 3,” Moran told his colleagues, referring to demolition, even if Commissioner Rainford was “half joking about [a fire training exercise]. … This is a clean start for everyone,” Moran added. “Get this [structure] down to the land that [the School Board owns]. … Let’s give ’em what they want.”

Moran reiterated several times that he had no intention of negotiating with the School Board over anything else related to the Florida House. “We can’t even get to first base.”

After making the motion for demolition, Rainford said, “We’re passing the tax burden on to the school district, which, in my opinion, fumbled this negotiation. We had a solution for it, and they declined it.”

Moran seconded the motion.

With a chuckle, Smith told Moran, “I sense this would be some type of therapy for you,” referring to the talk of a Fire Department training exercise. “But I don’t want to cost the taxpayers any more money” for restoration of the site, Smith added.

The commission should give the Florida House to the district, Smith said, and just “walk away. … If they don’t accept it, then we can knock it down.”

Moran protested. “We had a third party that is literally in the trades,” which worked on rehabilitating the structure, he continued, referring to the Suncoast Builders Association. They should have “first dibs” on the building, Moran stressed. Yet, he said, “At every turn, they were disrespected.”

When Moran called for the vote on Rainford’s motion, it failed 2-3.

Then Smith made his motion, which passed 3-2, with Moran and Rainford in the minority.

1 thought on “Rainford, Moran lose out on proposal to allow county Fire Department to burn down Florida House in training exercise”

  1. Kudos to Smith and Neunder for saving Florida House from Moran and Rainford who seem to always favor the developers and their partners in the builders association and who would rather burn it down than let it benefit the community as a wonderful teaching resource. I worked as a volunteer at Florida House for several years from moving it from Proctor Rd to Beneva Rd, and ultimately educating Sarasota County 5th graders on STEM energy. During all that time I never saw a building trades association member on site and am certain if any were there they were not volunteers. I expect the school system to do a much better service for the community than the builders trade association.


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