School Board votes 3-2 to terminate lease of Florida House property in 12 months

Formal notice provided to county administrator

The Sarasota County School Board has voted 3-2 to provide formal notice to the Sarasota County Commission that it will terminate its lease of the property where the Florida House stands, 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota, as of September 2023.

In accord with Section 11 of the lease agreement, the county will have one year to remove the Florida House structure from the site, as noted on the Sept. 6 School Board meeting agenda.

The lease was set to expire on June 30, 2027, as county administrative staff has pointed out to the county commissioners.

This spring, county staff terminated its lease with what once was the Florida House Institute; that entity had transitioned into Southface Sarasota after a merger with the nonprofit Southface Institute, which is based in Atlanta. Subsequently, Southface Sarasota staff was able to negotiate a lease for office space on the campus of New College of Florida, which is near the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

During the Sept. 6 School Board meeting, Chair Jane Goodwin and board members Shirley Brown and Tom Edwards voted for the lease termination. School Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose dissented.

In June, the School Board denied a County Commission request to sublease the Florida House building to the Manatee Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA).

In the aftermath of that decision, the commissioners voted unanimously on July 13 to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to consider the best use of the structure until the county’s lease with the School Board ended.

“I have no interest in any intramural squabbles with the school district,” Chair Alan Maio said at the time. “They made a decision. It’s their property … and we have to live with that.”

Twice over the past months, Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan W. Asplen III expressed an interest in the purchase of the Florida House in correspondence with Lewis. The most recent letter was dated June 20. In the earlier one — dated March 2 — Asplen told Lewis, “Sarasota County Schools wishes to secure ownership of the Florida House to ensure that the facility is able to maintain its profound contributions to our local community, and beyond.”

Nonetheless, on July 13, Commissioner Michael Moran told his colleagues, “I was a little disappointed” in the School Board’s decision not to allow the commissioners to proceed with negotiating the sublease with the MSBIA. “Things might change down the road,” Moran added.

It was Moran who made the motion on April 26 calling for county staff work out a deal with the MSBIA.

Commissioner Nancy Detert was the only county board member to oppose the MSBIA discussions.

On Sept. 13, a week after the Sept. 6 School Board vote on the early termination of the lease, Chair Jane Goodwin sent a letter to Commission Chair Maio, reporting the action.

Goodwin noted that the lease between the school district and the county dated to July 11, 2007.

In a separate letter from Asplen to County Administrator Lewis, Asplen provided the language in Section 11 of that lease: “Landlord shall have the right to terminate this Lease Agreement, without cause, upon one year’s written notice.”

Asplen invited Lewis to call him if Lewis wished to discuss the matter.

No item related to the issue is included on the County Commission’s agenda for its regular meeting on Sept. 27. As of the deadline for this issue, the News Leader had been unable to learn from county staff when — or if — such an item will be on a later commission agenda.

During the Sept. 6 School Board meeting, Goodwin pointed out that, given the number of schools in close proximity to the Beneva Road site, “I would really like for [the County Commission] to sell us the [building] and let us develop it for some of our students. … We can use this to ‘show and tell,’ if you will, to our different trades at [Suncoast Technical College],” for one example, she pointed out.

The college is just south of the Beneva Road property. The District’s Suncoast Polytechnical High School, which stands at 4650 Beneva Road, is even closer to the former Florida House site.

During remarks to the County Commission in February, Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota, talked about students enrolled at the nearby Suncoast Technical College upgrading the Florida House’s plumbing, electrical and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems during the past 12 months. Students also “got to work on cisterns,” Whittle said, “which they never would somewhere else.”

“It would be a good fit for us to buy [the house] at fair value from the county,” Goodwin continued during the School Board meeting. Then county staff would not have to worry about moving it, she said.

Vice Chair Tom Edwards pointed out that the building “could be complementary to a lot of things the school district is currently working on.”

Having checked with companies that transport such structures to new locations, Goodwin added that she had learned “it wouldn’t be an easy building to move.” The roof would have to be removed, for example, she noted.

Conflicting viewpoints

During the School Board discussion, Vice Chair Edwards made the motion to deliver to the county the formal lease termination.

Then board member Bridget Ziegler said, “It’s certainly an awkward position I find the district in in this scenario.”

She acknowledged that her husband, Christian, is the District 2 county commissioner. Nonetheless, she pointed out, “I have no personal dog in this fight.” However, she indicated her belief that the lease termination could affect the school district’s relationship with Sarasota County Government.

“I know that our staff works tremendously well with their staff,” Ziegler continued, “and I just would have hoped there was a different way we could find a resolution to this. … I don’t want it to backfire.”

“We need to find a way to collaborate,” Ziegler said of the district and county government. “It’s kind of a funky situation when you own the land and somebody else owns the building. Not ideal by any means.”

Board member Shirley Brown asked what the county would be able to do. Could it move the building?

“They would have to move the building or sell it to us,” Superintendent Asplen replied, referring to the commissioners.

Assistant Superintendent Jody Dumas, who also serves as the district’s chief operating officer, added that county staff would have to work with district staff if the County Commission wished to relocate the structure.

Dumas added that the commissioners had given County Administrator Lewis the authority to operate the house in accord with the terms of the lease. The last information that district staff had heard, Dumas continued, was that Lewis was working on how to make best use of the space.

Earlier this year, Lewis told the commissioners about the potential that the Florida House could serve the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension staff in the county, which has outgrown its space at Twin Lakes Park.

UF/IFAS works with sustainability issues, as Commissioner Detert pointed out, and the Florida House was a “green demonstration” facility, offering the public educational opportunities regarding a wide variety of best environmental practices.

Board member Brown did note the possibility that she and her colleagues potentially could extend the lease for the South Beneva Road land where the structure stands. “Any number of things could happen,” she continued, “but it’s up to the county.”

“I certainly think this fast-tracks what the county’s going to be doing with the building,” Dumas responded.

Vice Chair Edwards said he was the one who had requested that the item be placed on the Sept. 6 agenda. He referenced the discussions over the past year-and-a-half about the future of the Florida House, adding that he did not perceive a “meeting of the minds” between school district leaders and county leaders.

Like Bridget Ziegler, Edwards pointed to the “awkward situation,” with the district owning the property and the county owning the building. “Why not try to figure out how to undo that bad situation?” Edwards said.

Chair Goodwin told her colleagues, “I’ve been trying to talk to county commissioners for about six months and none of them would have dialogue with me about this.”

She added that she believes the County Commission’s intent was to “kick this can down the road” until School Board members likely to vote to end the lease had stepped down from their positions.

Two new School Board members elected during the Aug. 23 Primary will begin their terms late this fall, and Ziegler was re-elected. Goodwin and Brown will be leaving the School Board.

Goodwin also noted that Jon Mast, executive director of the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association, had called her at one point and asked her to introduce him to members of the district staff, since he had no established relationships with any of them.

“He would like to be in that building,” she pointed out of Mast.

In a letter that he sent to Commission Chair Maio in June 2021, Mast discussed at length the Association’s proposal to purchase the Florida House from the county and relocate it to one of the “Quads” parcels next to the Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county. He explained that the Association was creating a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization “for the purpose of providing educational programs, workforce development, and the promotion of green/sustainable construction …”

If the county agreed to the sale of the building, Mast continued, the Association would cover all of the costs of relocating it.

This year, county staff ruled out the potential move to one of the Quads, citing the conservation easements over three of those parcels that the commissioners approved in October 2020 with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, and Sarasota Audubon, which operates the Nature Center at the Celery Fields.

Because of public outcry over the Association’s request to use one of the Quads, county staff even put a post on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page to refute the rumors about the commissioners allowing such a step.