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Residents opposed to New College tree removal booted from meeting

A backhoe pulls a large tree apart May 29 inside a fenced-off section of the Uplands Preserve, owned by New College of Florida. The college is clearing the area to make way for beach volleyball courts and a lacrosse practice field.
A backhoe pulls a large tree apart May 29 inside a fenced-off section of the Uplands Preserve, owned by New College of Florida. The college is clearing the area to make way for beach volleyball courts and a lacrosse practice field.
Photo by Jim DeLa
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Residents opposed to New College of Florida clearing trees and mangroves in the Uplands Preserve were kicked out of the State University System’s Board of Governors meeting Friday in Orlando after being denied a chance to speak on the issue.

Several residents, including members of the group Save Uplands NCF, were at the University of Central Florida in Orlando June 27-28 for the quarterly meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the operation and management of the Florida public university system’s 12 institutions, including New College. 

The group, as well as residents of the neighborhood next to the preserve, were stunned over Memorial Day weekend, when heavy machinery began knocking down 100-year-old pine trees on the strip of land along Sarasota Bay, running from the northern edge of the campus to the southern edge of the Powel Crosley Estate. 

New College is clearing the land to build beach volleyball courts and a practice soccer field for the school's fledgling athletics program.

The city of Sarasota issued a temporary order to stop the work because no permits were granted, but it was ultimately determined the preserve, on New College land, is state property and not subject to local tree ordinances.

Environmentalists contend the removal of trees in the preserve is a violation of local and possibly federal law because the tree removal has destroyed bird habitat. 

Jono Miller, the former chair of the NCF Master Plan Committee and president of NCF Freedom, cited an agreement signed when New College split from the University of South Florida years ago, in which both schools pledged to preserve the land for "passive recreational purposes" that would not require development. 

Building athletic fields on that land "is a clear violation of that agreement," Miller said after the land clearing began.

Frustration rises

During committee meetings on June 27, the BOG’s Facilities Committee approved the College’s Educational Plant Survey, which dealt with future land usage. 

Most of the discussion surrounded the fate of land currently being leased to New College by the Sarasota Airport Authority.

The issue of removing trees from the Uplands Preserve to build athletic fields was not addressed.

No opportunity for public comment was given during the committee meeting.

Panagioti Tsolkas speaks from the visitor's gallery at the State University System's Board of Governors meeting June 28 in Orlando. He was escorted from the room after the board refused to hear public comment on New College of Florida's removal of trees in the Uplands Preserve.
Image courtesy of The Florida Channel

When the chance for public comment came at Friday’s meeting of the full board, several people lined up to speak, but were cut off after a few seconds by the BOG’s general counsel, Rachel Kamoutsas. 

“It’s (Uplands Preserve) not an item on our agenda. The campus master plan is not on our agenda. Thank you, sir, your time is up,” she said to Miller and several others after turning off their microphones.

Panagioti Tsolkas, who describes himself on social media as an environmentalist and former editor at Earth First! Journal, said the BOG’s failure to address the issue was a “glaring oversight of the facilities committee … This is an urgent and pressing matter that reflects very poorly on the integrity of the State University System,” he said.

Robert Rosa’s microphone was cut after a couple of sentences. 

“Lands that we were entrusted with are slowly being taken away. As human beings, I think we are going in the wrong direction,” he said. 

“It’s about land, about promise, about trust,” said Chris Castillo. “You want to build to make your facility nicer, that’s cute. But you want to destroy mangroves. That will affect the community … It makes no sense.”

After the public comment period concluded, BOG Chair Brian Lamb attempted to move along to other items on the agenda but was interrupted twice by Tsolkas and Rosa, who began shouting from the visitors' gallery.

“Are you going to respond to public comment as presented?” Tsolkas yelled. “There is a serious matter of violation of the campus master plan and it deserves recognition and discussion.”

"Sir, I’m going to politely ask you to sit down while we go on with the meeting,” Lamb said. 

“Will you address this violation that’s happening on your watch?” Tsolkas shot back. 

“You’re going to have to leave,” Lamb said. 

“He’s asking for a fair answer,” Rosa shouted. “Yes or no. Will you address it?” 

Campus police then stepped in to escort Tsolkas and Rosa from the room. The board quickly finished the remaining agenda items and adjourned. 

The Observer's efforts to reach Cassandra Edwards, the BOG’s director of public affairs, for comment about the rules concerning public comment at meetings went unanswered.



Jim DeLa

Jim DeLa is the digital content producer for the Observer. He has served in a variety of roles over the past four decades, working in television, radio and newspapers in Florida, Colorado and Hawaii. He was most recently a reporter with the Community News Collaborative, producing journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties; and as a digital producer for ABC7 in Sarasota.

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