Staff assessment of Florida House finds it to be in generally good condition
At the same time that the Sarasota County commissioners and county administrative staff have dealt with public outrage over the prospect that the Florida House could be sold to a private industry group, county staff has completed its assessment of the structure’s condition, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has reported.
Staff found the structure to be in generally good condition, as noted in the resulting report.
In a May 2 email to the commissioners, Lewis wrote that they would recall his remarks to them about that assessment; he mentioned it during their April 12 meeting.
Additionally, Lewis wrote that Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham “is working on the direction provided by the Board [on April 26] and will ensure that an item is brought back at a future meeting.”
Lewis included in that email the exact motion that Commission Michael Moran made that day, directing staff to negotiate with the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA) “and/or any nonprofit that’s affiliated with them” to take over the county’s lease of the Florida House. Moran further cited the goal of ultimately seeing the building moved before the lease ends on July 9.
Commissioner Nancy Detect voted against Moran’s motion, decrying it because, on April 12, she had gained board consensus for a staff discussion of options she and her colleagues could consider in regard to the future of the Florida House. Lewis had indicated that that could be scheduled for a regular meeting no later than this month.
The News Leader learned through a public records request that the day before the April 12 regular commission meeting, Jon Mast, CEO of the MSBIA, and the organization’s new membership director, David Ballard, were to meet with all of the commissioners, one at a time, as required by the state’s Sunshine Laws.
The executive assistant to Chair Alan Maio and Vice Chair Ron Cutsinger had confirmed the 15-minute appointments in a March 31 email to Mast.
Since May 2021, the MSBIA has been asking the County Commission to sell it the Florida House. Both Mast, a former county employee, and his wife, Teresa, chair of the county Planning Commission and a director of the MSBIA, have noted that the organization has created its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Building Industry Institute. That entity would use the Florida House to provide training on facets of “green” building, Jon Mast pointed out in a June 2021 letter to commission Chair Alan Maio.
A March 14 county staff report on the Florida House, provided to the commissioners, explains that the Florida House was “the first green demonstration house in the country, [and it] has 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.”
The structure stands at 4454 S. Beneva Road, just north of the Sarasota County School District’s Suncoast Polytechnical High School and the Suncoast Technical College, which is in the southwest quadrant of the intersection of Beneva and Proctor roads.
Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen III also has informed the commissioners that the district would like to buy the Florida House and keep it where it is, as it has been the focus of numerous initiatives for students, including those training in various professions at Suncoast Technical College.
The Southwest Quad controversy
After Commissioner Moran made his April 26 motion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler referenced a rumor circulating in the community about plans for the Florida House to be moved to one of the Quads, the four parcels the county owns next to the Celery Fields. The latter site is the county’s internationally known bird-watching destination; it was created as a major stormwater project.
Ziegler indicated that he would be opposed to such a relocation.
In their communications to the commissioners — both via letter and in person — husband and wife Jon and Teresa Mast indicated a desire for the Florida House to be moved to the Southwest Quad.
In the fall of 2020, the commissioners agreed unanimously to place a conservation easement over three of the Quads: the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest parcels. The Northwest Quad already was home to a new fire station, and Chair Alan Maio earlier had indicated the prospect that another structure could be built on the property. In fact, this year, the board members have approved plans for a new “One Stop Center” building to contain all of the staff of the Planning and Development Services Department. That structure will become the destination for anyone who needs to work with those county employees in person.
County staff collaborated with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, and leaders of the Sarasota Audubon Society to put the conservation easements in place. Those easements were planned to limit future activities on the three Quads, to increase the value of the Celery Fields.
The documents did give the Foundation and Sarasota Audubon the right to construct buildings on the Southwest Quad, though the structures cannot have a combined footprint of more than 40,000 square feet, the agreement says. Moreover, the overall improvements cannot take up more than 6 acres.
In February, the two nonprofits unveiled their plans for “re-wilding” the Quads, in keeping with plans to preserve the Celery Fields as an attraction to birds and bird lovers.
However, because of reports about the MSBIA’s interest in the Southwest Quad, members of the public recently voiced alarm on Facebook group pages about the potential change of plans for that property.
In response to a May 3 email he received from a resident, County Administrator Lewis wrote that that information “provided on Facebook and other locations is not correct.”
Lewis continued, “The county entered into a conservation easement in 2020 on the SW quad that provides for both conservation and for a portion to be used for the County Government needs. The SE and NE quads also have been protected by the same conservation easement. The conservation easement was initiated by county commission, and they approved it in 2020 to protect the buffer with the celery fields.
“I am sorry you were misinformed by others, but there is no plan for private sector development on the SW quad or the other two protected quads,” Lewis added.
On May 3, Lewis notified the county commissioners that his assistant would be responding to emails similar to that one.
Late in the afternoon of that same day, the following appeared on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page:
“There’s a lot of misinformation flying around, so we’re here to clear the air.”
The post reiterated what Lewis had written to the resident. Then it added, “See the following excerpt from page three of Board Assignment 22-002:
“ ‘Future County Plans for Southwest Quad:
“ ‘The county-owned southwest quad is located at the southwestern intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road. The property is approximately 10.3 acres and is currently undeveloped. The developable area of this parcel is limited by a perpetual Conservation Easement … that was granted by the County to the Conversation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, Inc. … Per Section G of Article IV of the Conservation Easement: ‘Development and land uses are prohibited unless for government, civic, recreation, conservation, and/or education purposes by the Grantor or Grantee … ‘ Furthermore, per Article X. Miscellaneous, Paragraph P, No Third-Party Rights. ‘The Parties hereto do not intend, nor shall this Easement be construed, to grant any rights, privileges or interest to any third party.’ Therefore, the Conservation Easement does not allow for a private, non-governmental, or third party organization or office use.’”
“To reiterate, there is no plan for private sector development on the southwest quad or the other two protected quads.
“Read the full board assignment here: https://loom.ly/usJeOMo”
The post included an aerial photo of the Quads.
Numerous comments resulted. Among them were the following, the News Leader found:
- And don’t let that business group take the Florida House away either! We brought our 5th grade class there, and that’s its purpose! Education!
- “Thanks for this. Very wise to get in front of wrong information!”
- “On 4/26/22 Commissioner Moran with the support of all but one of our commissioners authorized the staff to move forward with negotiating with MSBIA, disregarding much more appealing options. MSBIA has documented their desire to move the Florida House to the SW quad along with their willingness to pay for rezoning. (The letter is included in the board assignment above.) What about this backdoor deal should we not question given the shadiness of our commissioners? Watch the video from the meeting. We have a beef with it Mike Moran!”
- “Why is it that I don’t believe you? Developers get their way 100% of the time here in Sarasota so we expect over time they will get their hands on this parcel as well.”
The conservation easements do say that the county reserves certain rights to itself, “including the right to engage in all uses of the Protected Property that are not expressly prohibited herein and are not inconsistent with the purpose of this Easement.”
Then it lists allowable development on the Southwest Quad in “Envelopes” 1 and 2. With the first, the document says, “Permitted improvements and uses are limited to governmental, civic, recreational, conservation, and/or educational buildings along with associated infrastructure and parking.”
The county is to notify the Conservation Foundation if its staff initiates “the planning process for any capital improvement projects or development application proposals within Development Envelope 1.”
The staff assessment of the Florida House
Prepared by the county’s General Services Department staff, the Facility Condition Assessment of the Florida House notes that the structure was built in 1996 with gross building area of 2,600 square feet.
“Overall,” the report says, “the structure, roof and building systems are in good condition with approximately 7-10 years of remaining life. The solar hot water heater needs to be evaluated to determine if it is currently leaking. Electrical switches and fixtures that are not working need to be addressed by a licensed electrician,” the report adds.
Further, the ramp put in place for the Florida House to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) needs repairs, the report says.
Located on the east side of the building, the ramp has no bottom rail “and the handrail has separated in one location,” the report explains.
“Energy efficient designs and technologies, such as LED lighting and solar panels,” are included in the building, the report points out. “The main home is 1,557 square feet with an additional 1,043 square feet of enclosed porch/lanais space creating an indoor/outdoor area,” both of which are air-conditioned, the report continues.
The site also has a 1-acre garden, the report notes.
The Florida House is on a reinforced concrete slab that has been raised on cinderblock piers, the report explains. “The walls are constructed of wood and brick with wood roof truss.”
Sutter Roofing employees who inspected the metal roof on April 24, 2020 gave it an overall grade of B, the report adds, “indicating 10 years of life remaining at that time …”
Installation of new windows donated to the house in 2017 was completed from 2019 to 2021, the report says. “All the new windows [feature] impact resistant, dual pane, energy efficient glass.”
Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota — the nonprofit that operates the Florida House — told the county commissioners in late February that the windows were made by PGT, whose headquarters is in Venice. She said they were valued at $35,000.
The assessment report further notes that the structure has three heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) units, though one of them is reserved for use “only when large gatherings occur.” The other two “are in good condition with an estimated 7 years of life expectancy remaining.”
The report also points out that the Florida House has smoke detectors but no sprinklers or fire alarm system. It adds that the electrical panels “are in good condition.” However, the report says, several light fixtures and switches do not appear to work, so “further investigation is suggested to determine the cause.”