Despite points of contention, Sarasota County commissioners are anxious to strike a land deal for aquarium.
As Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium pursues a new aquarium facility in Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota County officials have made a land agreement with the research institution a high priority.
“We’ll drop whatever else we’re working on to get this done,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said.
Based on a discussion at the Oct. 9 County Commission meeting, there are still several issues that need to be addressed before a deal can be reached.
In September, Mote asked the county for the rights to about 27 acres of land to build a four-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium near Interstate 75 and University Parkway. That came as a surprise to some commissioners, given Mote initially asked to use 9 acres. The additional land includes a retention pond and parking space.
During previous discussions, the County Commission expressed a desire to sell the land to Mote for a nominal price. Mote, however, said it would prefer to initially lease the land for an indefinite period before actually acquiring it. That was a point of concern for the county attorney, who said such an agreement could open the county to legal trouble.
Still, despite any points of contention, the commission directed its staff to draft a non-binding term sheet with Mote outlining the scope of a future lease agreement in time for the board’s Oct. 24 meeting. Lewis and others described the issues raised at the Oct. 9 meeting as procedural, not substantive disagreements.
“I think everybody’s on the same page and everybody wants to make this deal happen,” Commissioner Mike Moran said. “If everyone’s truly acting in good faith, it’ll happen.”
There are two factors driving the commission’s desire to move quickly. One is Mote’s timeline for building a project. The organization hopes to begin construction in 2019 and complete the project by 2021. In a September letter to the county, Mote attorney John Patterson said leadership wanted to have a term sheet in place before the aquarium’s Oct. 27 Oceanic Evening event, at which more details about the project would be shared.
The second is a proposed county charter amendment that voters could approve in November. The proposal would prohibit the county’s ability to sell parkland. Previously, commissioners have expressed a preference to sell the property to Mote, citing a disinterest in perpetually managing Mote’s use of the land and potentially assuming liability for what happens there.
The commission hopes that, by outlining the terms of an agreement before the November election, a sale can go through even if the referendum passes.
The timing of that sale put Mote officials at odds with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. The land is currently zoned for governmental use, which means if Mote buys the property, it cannot build or operate an aquarium until the county approves a new zoning classification.
For that reason, Mote is asking the county to initially lease the land as the aquarium initiates a rezone. Once the rezone is complete, Mote is willing to acquire the property. But if it buys it now, the organization said its fundraising efforts would be hampered.
"Furthermore, neither Mote nor any other organization will spend millions of dollars on design and permitting for a project like this unless its right to use the property is legally secured," Patterson wrote in the September letter.
DeMarsh recommended against transitioning from a lease into a sale, arguing the county could potentially invite legal issues as it considers the future rezone request. Patterson disagreed with the county attorney’s assessment. But even as the commission directed staff to proceed with a term sheet on a lease, DeMarsh maintained that path invited problems.
“It can be written,” DeMarsh said. “It includes considerably more legal risk for the county, so it’s not my recommendation that the commission enter into that type of an arrangement. But if I’m directed — ‘You must do a lease on the front end, convert into a title transfer,’ that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
As commissioners encouraged staff to move swiftly on an agreement, DeMarsh and others assured the board spending two weeks on finalizing a term sheet was as expedient as possible.
“Considering I’ve worked many months on Selby Library, a year to get that together, a year and a half for the Orioles baseball, a couple of years for the Atlanta Braves — to say it’s fast would be a massive understatement,” DeMarsh said.