SRQ Magazine | May 2016
The headlines have been gripped for years by tension between Sarasota city and county commissioners on an array of disagreements—homeless shelters; use of a community redevelopment area; management of the Robert L. Taylor Complex. But there may not be a more frustrating point of division than the use of a single lot on Ringling Boulevard, land that for years housed the Sarasota Police headquarters. Now vacant and hardly a paradise, county officials would like to take ownership of the property for a parking lot, something officials with the Tax Collector’s Office say is desperately needed to handle customers.
Based on a memorandum of understanding dating back to 2003, the city agreed to allow the county to use the land for an expansion of judicial facilities in Downtown Sarasota, but city leaders never envisioned that when the county moved on the matter more than a decade later, it would be to make room for vehicles using existing facilities. The city now labels the original agreement regarding the land a “sham.” And while county officials maintain the land needs better use than sitting as an unkempt vacant lot in the middle of downtown, there seems little room for middle ground on what use should justify turning over the property.
Ironically, the original suggestion of moving the land from city to county hands was considered an unusual moment of accord between the city and county. At a time of explosive growth and stressed government services, then-Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley began exploring the possibility of moving principal county functions out of downtown to instead locate them on properties closer to Interstate-75 and outside the Sarasota city limits. The county owns large plots of land that already house some facilities including an operations center just off Fruitville Road east of the interstate.
But city leaders, anxious about the loss of a major employer in downtown, started negotiations regarding shared interest between the government agencies. Ultimately, the county opted to stay downtown and the city offered up publicly used lands for possible expansion. A major part of the city’s future infrastructure plans included a new police station—a 200,000-square-foot structure held its grand opening in 2010. The old station, riddled with asbestos and in use since 1959, was shuttered then demolished.
But nothing ever happened as far as a land swap. Then in early 2014, county leaders suggested taking over the land at a time when space was at a premium.
Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates started lobbying county commissioners regarding the space, saying her existing offices on Washington Boulevard have seen a tremendous increase in traffic ever since the Florida Legislature called for tax collectors around Florida to start housing Department of Motor Vehicle functions. As of June last year, Sarasota residents obtaining or renewing drivers’ licenses or conducting any number of other activities at the DMV are suddenly coming to the same offices where people apply for hunting licenses. “We see customers circling the parking lot looking for spaces now,” says Assistant Tax Collector Sherri Smith. “The parking lot at Adams and 301 is completely filled.”
But city officials say they are under no obligation to turn over the property. City Attorney Robert Fournier says the property in fact doesn’t need to ever exchange hands and when the county waited more than a decade to pursue the transaction, any agreement was long nullified. The fact the original agreement was made under city duress only helps that position, he says; “[Ley] skillfully exploited the panic he had engendered by his announcement to the County’s benefit and the City’s detriment,” Fournier wrote in a memo to city commissioners last year.
“Sarasota County was totally unwilling to let its obligation to remain downtown be quantified in the context of an inter-local agreement in such a way that it would be possible to determine, if necessary, whether the agreement was being adhered to by the County or was being violated,” Fournier says. And since the original agreement was supposedly about growing actual facilities, not parking spaces, the city need not hand over the land.
Months after issuing the scolding report, Fournier says he has no objection to the city leasing the land and just meant to stress that there is no obligation to hand the land over or be forced to sell it. “The county also has no obligation to remain downtown, and the city cannot force the county to remain downtown,” he says. But there remains a demand for parking. Ford-Coates, who has her budget set by the Sarasota County Commission, has formally lobbied county commissioners about opening negotiations with city leaders. And if this lot has proven too contentious, then other city properties, like one on Laurel Street, could also help satisfy an increased demand for parking space.
Meanwhile, plans for an actual expansion of the judicial center seem far off, at least in Sarasota. County Commissioners are in the process now of placing a referendum in front of voters that would fund a judicial renovation in South County, improving the Robert L. Anderson building in Venice and allowing some justice system strain to move south.