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Will the sale of Sarasota airport land to New College get the go-ahead? FAA will decide soon

A black and white rendering from an aerial view of the Sarasota Airport, showing the section that is occupied by New College
courtesy SRQ airport
This drawing shows an aerial view of the Sarasota-Manatee International Airport, showing the section that is occupied by New College

The sale of airport land has to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which blocked the deal in April, citing numerous problems.

A decision is looming on a proposal to sell about 30 acres of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport's land to New College of Florida, a negotiation that has drawn accusations of political influence and faulty math.

Federal aviation authorities blocked the deal in April, saying it did not appear to be in the best interest of the fast-growing airport to sell the land, and raising questions about how the $11.5 million sale figure was reached.

Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority CEO Rick Piccolo responded with a 93-page rebuttal, which he sent to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in May.

The FAA is reviewing it and is expected to reach a final decision in the coming days, according to Piccolo.

“I'm trying to do something that's good for the airport, good for the protection of our aeronautical surfaces, and good for the university in the sense that it will give it certainty for the future,” said Piccolo in an interview with WUSF.

New College of Florida, a state-funded honors college founded in 1960, has been leasing airport land for dorms, sporting facilities and parking, since the 1960s, and is under a long-term lease until 2056.

"The deal is good “for the community because it means this college will be here and have its 100-year anniversary then. And it'll have a long-term certainty. I don't see where anyone's being hurt here," Piccolo added.

Rebuttal

The FAA said in its April letter that it appeared the land was converted to non-aeronautical/educational use without its consent, and as a college it may contain elements that are incompatible with airport operations, like residential, recreational and water retention areas that may attract wildlife and pose a risk to aviation safety.

In his rebuttal, Piccolo included historical documents that show the FAA did know about the lease to New College decades ago, and even helped make sure the agreement met federal regulations.

The FAA had pointed to other flaws as well. Among them, that the appraisals appeared to be “missing certain information,” and were “not an unrestricted appraisal as required by federal guidance.”

The arrangement also appeared to gloss over the finer details of the current lease agreement, the FAA said.

Sunlight bursting through palm trees interlaced on a red brick path with tan and red buildings in background.
New College of Florida
/
Courtesy
A nationwide faculty organization says New College of Florida does not meet standards for acceptable working conditions. A special report released in Dec. 2023 recommended sanctions be placed on the school for not involving faculty with a number of changes including new Boards of Trustees members, the firing of its previous president Patricia Okker, and elimination of DEI and gender studies.

Piccolo has since provided WUSF with copies of appraisals New College had commissioned on the airport property, as well as an updated appraisal ordered by the airport, all of which he said he also sent to the FAA.

Both the airport's and New College's appraisals assess the value of land only, not the dormitory buildings there.

That takes a large chunk of money off the table that should belong to the airport, according to John Schussler, who retired as properties director at the Sarasota-Manatee airport in 2018.

"That would probably double the price of the land sale, if the land sale could happen," said Schussler. "It would be much more expensive than $11.5 million."

According to the lease, the dorms, buildings and the physical plant all belong to the airport when it ends in 2056.

The airport asked its appraiser not to include the value of the buildings in the appraisals because if the college is not able to pay fair market rent in 32 years, the airport would be left with dormitories which it can't use and which don't easily convert to apartments, said Piccolo.

"So most logically, the airport would have to spend millions of dollars to tear down all those buildings, and then start all over again. It doesn't make financial sense," said Piccolo.

Even with the buildings not in the equation, the two appraisals are still quite far apart.

For instance, New College's appraisal assessed the largest parcel -- of 20 acres of airport land -- at about $5 million. The airport appraisal said it's worth more than twice that -- $11 million.

Giving a hint as to how considering the buildings on land would raise the value of the sale, the New College-commissioned appraisal for a small, three-acre triangle of land it currently owns across the street from the airport -- with an office building on it -- is valued at $7.8 million.

The airport appraisals showed the total value of the 30 acres for sale -- along with guarantees that development of New College land would not hamper the airport's operations -- was $17.7 million.

The proposed sale amount of $11.5 million came in at $6 million less than the airport's initial appraisal.

The size of the land sale was whittled down to two parcels, rather than five, and the airport appraised them at about $12.3 million, while New College’s appraisal was about $7.7 million, according to Piccolo.

Signs at the Sarasota airport show straight ahead arrows for the airport and right for New College of Florida Pei campus.
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF
The entry to the New College of Florida campus area that leases land from Sarasota Bradenton International airport

As part of the deal, the airport insisted on what is known as an avigation easement -- to restrict what New College does across the street, on land the college owns, in order to protect the airport's runway approach.

The airport appraisal valued the avigation easement at over a million dollars.

The FAA said in April it doesn't believe the airport should have to pay for that, and that the airport should already have zoning protections in place.

“The FAA ignored the fact that educational institutions are exempted from local zoning under Florida Statute 333,” said Piccolo.

Furthermore, if the airport were to lease the land, at fair market value for the next 32 years of the lease term, it would see a net benefit of nearly $38 million -- or more than triple the proposed sale price, according to Piccolo’s proposal, which the FAA cited in its prior rejection letter.

“Therefore, it appears a greater benefit results from retaining the property,” the FAA said.

FAA's narrow lens

Critics of the deal say the airport CEO appears unduly concerned with the college’s success -- and that Piccolo’s sole focus should be on the best interest of the airport, which has seen traffic more than triple in the last several years.

“After airport passenger traffic took off in 2018, selling airport land no longer makes sense for the airport,” said Schussler, who agrees with the FAA’s preliminary decision to block the sale.

“The expansion of New College was announced in 2023 but they don’t have enough land to expand upon. That is not the airport authority’s problem,” Schussler added.

Peter Kirsch, an aviation lawyer with experience in deals to sell airport land, but who is not involved with this deal, said it’s rare for airports to sell their land.

The FAA has final say over whether such deals can go ahead or not, and is looking at this with a “fairly narrow lens,” said Kirsch, a partner in the law firm of Kaplan, Kirsch and Rockwell in Washington, DC and Denver, CO.

“The FAA’s principal -- and to a larger extent, only -- concern is whether the transaction is in the best interests of the national aviation system. That is the FAA’s job, to make sure that when they approve a transaction like this, that it is good for the airport,” said Kirsch.

“Whether it's good for New College is not relevant, whether it's good for the community, whether it's good for economic development, none of those are relevant considerations,” Kirsch said. 

Kirsch said a third appraisal may be needed to comply with federal regulations and come to common ground between the two sides.

Did politics play a role?

New College was taken over last year by allies of DeSantis, with the goal of transforming the small liberal arts college, modeling it after the private conservative Christian school in Michigan known as Hillsdale College, and seeking to double its student body.

Just where to house all those potential students is a problem for the college, which is nestled on the west side of Tamiami Trail, near Sarasota Bay, and is leasing land from the airport across the street for dorms, some of which are closed due to mold issues.

The deal to sell the land was approved earlier this spring by both the boards of New College and the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority.

Florida voters have elected solely Republican governors since 1999, so those holding board seats were named by either Gov. Ron DeSantis, or former governors Rick Scott or Charlie Crist.

"As an attorney for New College, I love the fact that we're getting a great deal and a well-negotiated deal," said Bill Galvano in February, after the New College Board of Trustees approved the sale.

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
Screenshot
An aerial view of the land that New College currently leases from airport, and plans to purchase for $11.5 million.

A tumultuous political environment surrounds New College since the takeover. Some residents have pointed out that airport CEO Rick Piccolo’s son, Fred, previously worked for both Governor DeSantis and current New College president Richard Corcoran.

Piccolo denied any influence from his son’s working relationships on the land deal.

“He worked for those administrations, he had a job to do, and no influence on any of this at all,” Piccolo said.

“I have approached all the presidents of the university through the last 30 years about solving this problem. And just because of coincidence, this particular president and my son worked together at one time, and this particular president said, ‘Gee, I see the problem here and let's try to solve it.’"

According to Piccolo, the problem is that the college is on a very long lease with the airport, at a low cost that cannot increase to today’s rates, so airport revenue from the lease is limited to around $105,000 per year.

His position is that the airport does not need this land, whether for increased passenger traffic or parking.

"We've done the studies on that, and we can go to 10-12 million passengers (per year) and not need that land. We are at four million," Piccolo said.

"And we have gone through a parking study that we take to our board in August. We're not going to build parking on New College. Parking will be built, like every other airport, right in front of the terminal, because we'll go vertical."

Piccolo has also made his case in an Op-Ed in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, noting that the deal must be made at fair market value, taking issue with media accounts that called Schussler a whistleblower, and questioning Schussler's political motivations.

According to Schussler, Piccolo is essentially giving away millions of dollars, and, he argued in his own recent Op-Ed, putting future airport needs at risk.

"The more Rick insists politics is playing no role in the land sale, the more citizens are beginning to realize it probably is," Schussler wrote.

Asked for comment, the FAA said in an email on July 2 it is "still reviewing the Sarasota–Bradenton International Airport Authority’s rebuttal" and "has not made a final determination on the sale."

Updated: July 9, 2024 at 12:43 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include details on the appraisals and negotiations, and additional quotes from Piccolo.
I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.