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New College's tree removal from Uplands stuns neighbors


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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Despite objections from neighbors and a stop order issued — and then rescinded — by the city of Sarasota, New College of Florida is continuing to clear 100-year-old pine trees from a portion of an area known as the Uplands Preserve to make way for new athletic facilities.

The college maintains the land is state property and not subject to city jurisdiction, according to college spokesman Nathan March. 

After a flurry of emails throughout the Memorial Day weekend, the city determined it can't stop New College from clearing the land, City Attorney Robert Fournier said. 

“Unfortunately, it would be difficult at best to enforce our tree ordinance,” he said.

The Observer obtained a copy of a May 28 email from Bill Galvano, a lawyer representing New College, to Mike Connelly, legal counsel to the city of Sarasota Planning Board and the Board of Adjustment, that asserted the city does not have the authority to stop the work.

“The current land clearing on the NCF campus is being conducted to accommodate uses that are consistent with the Campus Master Plan and Campus Development Agreement,” the email states. “Accordingly, the City does not have the legal authority to issue a stop work order to NCF, or to require NCF to obtain permits for land clearing or other development activities.”

On May 29, Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson informed the college via email that the city was powerless to act. 

“After a review by the City Attorney’s Office, the City’s Development Services Department, and the City of Sarasota’s Planning Department it has been determined that the City of Sarasota does not have the authority to stop the removal of the trees on the New College of Florida campus in this circumstance.”

A stop work order issued by the city was posted on the property on May 25 after complaints from residents. 

“We wanted to be sure” the college had the authority to remove the trees, Fournier said. After a review by city staff, the stop order was lifted May 28 according to the city‘s planning office, and work resumed the next morning. 


'Environmental disaster'

The Uplands Preserve is a strip of land along Sarasota Bay, running from the northern edge of the campus to the southern edge of the Powel Crosley Estate. The area currently being cleared is about 40% of that area, according to Jono Miller, the former chair of the NCF Master Plan Committee.

The Uplands Preserve is a strip of land along Sarasota Bay, running from the northern edge of the New College campus to the southern edge of the Powel Crosley Estate (labeled D).

Miller, who is opposed to developing the Uplands Preserve, cites 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.

“It is an environmental disaster,” said Andrea Zucker, who owns a home nearby. “We have osprey living here, we have eagles that were in a nest in these trees, all kinds of woodpeckers, so much natural habitat they are destroying right now.”

Zucker’s neighbor, Peter Schelhouse, said the work on the Uplands Preserve happened with very little warning. 

“We contacted the city of Sarasota Thursday afternoon … And I contacted the state and I called two or three or four different organizations trying to find out what was going on,” he said. “They were all denying any ability to control what happens.”

The college posted a short news release on its website May 25 hinting that work was underway. 

“New College is currently establishing a new grass field and sand volleyball courts on the Bayfront Campus that will benefit our students and the greater community,” it said. 

It also noted cabbage palms removed would be replanted in other areas of campus and several invasive species had already been removed to preserve mangroves on the shoreline.


Neighbors feel blindsided

March said New College President Richard Corcoran has taken a “proactive approach” to informing residents of the changes. “The president has been active and visible in the community” and has kept neighborhood homeowners associations apprised of the college’s plans.

However, several homeowners who gathered at the entrance of the fenced-off area disputed that, as they watched a backhoe take a large tree apart May 29. 

“There was no notice for this,” Schelhouse said. “When something that's going to happen that's going to impact a neighborhood, generally you get a notice and there's a meeting.” 

Zucker, a New College alumnae, said she and her husband bought their home in 1979, in large part, because of the Uplands Preserve. 

“The students loved this area too,” she said. “It was their nature area.”

She said the neighborhood would gather among the trees to enjoy the bayfront. 

“It was what made the Uplands special. This is no ordinary neighborhood.”

Miller, who is also the president of a group called NCF Freedom, opposed to the recent takeover of New College by political appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis, said the city may be able to intervene if they can determine New College's plans for the land are not in line with the college's current master plan.

"The city may still have grounds to get involved," he said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has signed off on the project, saying the total project area involves less than 10 acres, will not affect wetlands or other surface waters; and will not “cause adverse water quantity or flooding impacts to receiving water and adjacent lands.”

But for residents of the neighborhood, “They're not taking into account the impact of what they're doing here on the bay, into the quality of our lives,” Zucker said. 

“We'd like to see them stop doing this until we see at least a full plan that we as a community are able to participate in,” she said. “Make us reasonable partners in this to preserve as much as possible.”

Another neighbor, Karen Stack, said the college’s attitude toward the area has changed. “Historically New College had wanted to be a good neighbor to the Uplands.” 

The college said it wants that to continue. 

“We look forward to them enjoying our presence,” March said.

 

author

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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