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Sarasota-Manatee Airport board approves sale of land to New College

Three men in suits sit at a board dias in front of a green FLY SRQ sign
Kerry Sheridan
The Sarasota Manatee airport board approved the $11.5 million proposal at its meeting Monday, March 25, 2024

The deal still requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, and the funding must be released by the state, according to SRQ airport president Rick Piccolo.

The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority on Monday approved the $11.5 million sale of more than 30 acres of land to New College of Florida, but the deal still needs the green light from federal aviation authorities in order to proceed.

At Monday's meeting, the vote was unanimous, and none of the six commissioners raised any questions about it. The board of New College also voted to approve the deal in February.

Both boards are appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and allies of his administration took over New College last year with the goal of transforming the liberal arts school into a Christian conservative institution emulating Hillsdale College in Michigan.

New College has been leasing the land in question from the airport for many decades.

A former airport official has pointed to a series of flaws with the deal, including that its dollar value would be much higher if it accounted for the buildings on the land, which it does not.

"I think it would be a big number that would perhaps double the sales price," said John Schussler, who retired from his job overseeing leases at the airport in 2018.

Airport president Rick Piccolo has acknowledged that the appraisal price is based on land only, not the dormitory buildings there, which would be owned by the airport at the end of the lease term, some three decades from now.

Last month, New College lawyer Bill Galvano praised what he called a "well-negotiated deal," and the university's president, Richard Corcoran, called it "a win-win for not just the airport, ourselves, but also the community."

For his part, Piccolo has touted the SRQ airport's fast growth, tripling passenger traffic in five years.

In an op-ed in Monday's Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Piccolo wrote of nine major expansion projects underway at the airport, at a cost of $200 million.

"We are headed for the finish line on many needed improvements. That said, the airport is already planning for the next race that is on the horizon as the community continues to grow," he wrote.

But when it comes to the New College leased acreage, Piccolo has told WUSF that the airport's master plan shows it does not need the land.

"None of that land is needed for future development," Piccolo said in an interview in February. "Our master plan identifies that we don't need the land anyway."

Schussler said that statement is misleading.

"The airport’s 2021 master plan does not mention New College, nor does it say the airport doesn’t need that land," said Schussler.

"Airport master plans look 10-20 years into the future," he said, pointing out that the New College ground leases had more than 30 years remaining.

The deal approved Monday would sell 30.8 acres of airport land to New College, which is considering plans to build a baseball stadium there.

An aerial view of the land that New College currently leases from airport, shaded in a rust color, and plans to purchase for $11.5 million
An aerial view of the land that New College currently leases from airport, and plans to purchase for $11.5 million.

One issue airport officials point out in board documents is that the 100-year lease that New College signed with the airport in 1957 has the college renting the land annually for "$108,072 which would be much higher today under the modern standards."

"For example, the current fair market value rental rate for undeveloped Airport land generally is $0.85 psf (per square foot). If the College were charged the general rate, it would come to $1,289,245 per annum," said the documents.

"Over the remaining 32 years remaining on both Leases, this equates to $37,797,536 of unattainable revenue."

Other benefits to the airport include a land swap that "protects the airport's runway approach on Runway 4," Piccolo said at Monday's meeting.

"One of the things that happens right now is under Florida law, educational facilities are exempted from a lot of the permitting and zoning requirements. So this will give us protection to our runway for as well," he said.

But Monday's vote to approve a deal is still "conceptual," said Piccolo, because hurdles remain before the sale can proceed.

"The proposed agreement is subject to FAA approval and state funding. We have received neither yet," Piccolo said.

Asked for comment, the FAA said in an email that it is "reviewing documentation from the airport on this matter."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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