MARCO ISLAND — The Collier County School District may have seen the light, but for the residents of Marco Island, it is going to take some more time or a seat at the table to put solar technology on Tract K.
The residents of Marco Island spoke loudly in opposition to the proposed alternative energy project Tuesday during a joint meeting of the Collier County School Board and the Marco Island City Council.
Tract K is an 11.6 acre piece of land off of Tigertail Court on Marco Island. It was deeded to the district in 1989 by the Deltona Corp. for “school purposes.”
Superintendent Dennis Thompson and Gary Elliott, CEO of United Energy Technologies, spoke to the council Tuesday about a proposal to use 4 acres around the edge of Tract K to put solar panels on the property.
In return, Thompson offered the remaining 7.6 acres of property to the city of Marco Island at no cost to the city for use as the city sees fit.
Thompson said the agreement would benefit the district and the Marco Island Charter Middle School, which pays a portion of its energy costs, while giving Marco Island the deed to a property valued at about $3.5 million. In addition, local students would benefit by taking trips to see the solar panels and learning about alternative energies, he said. He also believed it would stimulate development in the area and would save 4,000 barrels of oil.
“It will also utilize a resource that is not currently being used to the benefit of all,” he said.
Tract K has been sitting vacant since the Deltona Corp. deeded the property to the district. In March 2006, the Collier County School Board had discussions about selling Tract K. Those discussions were met with anger from Marco city officials and residents, several of whom wanted the district to build a school on that site.
The Collier County School Board decided against selling, but then there was talk that Marco Island and the district could find a piece of land owned by the city to swap with Tract K. But the city and the district could not find a piece of property acceptable for a swap.
That is not to say there are some problems with the Tract K site. There is an eagle’s nest in a tree in the middle of a site. While the district could build its solar panels during the season when the eagles are not nesting, the city would not be able to use the remaining property until the eagles had left the nest and didn’t return for six years.
City council members and the public wanted to know about the feasibility of putting a school on the property. Thompson quickly responded that the Collier County School District had no plans to put a high school on the property.
“I am not able to recommend building a high school when we have so many vacant seats at Lely High School and the other high schools,” he said. “We also don’t have the land to build a high school. We need 35 to 50 acres minimum for a small high school. There is not enough space to build a high school and give students the equivalent education they would receive at another high school in the district.”
But some Marco residents said they were not looking for the district to build a traditional high school.
“Allow us the opportunity to come up with an alternative plan, a school for exceptional student education,” said Mario Sanchez, a Marco resident and a professor at Miami-Dade College. “There are parents in this community who would love it. ... You have told us a small high school is not an option. Let’s think outside the box.”
Terri DiSciullo, a former Marco City councilwoman who is the treasurer for the Marco Island Parks and Recreation Foundation, applauded Thompson for looking at alternative ways to save operating costs, but said she and the Foundation did not agree with the decision.
“We cannot support using 4 acres for a solar field instead of using it for its intended purpose,” she said. “I think Tract K would be more valuable as ball fields, a park or a high school.”
Marco Island Civic Association President Howard Jordan said the community still had many questions about the proposed project. He said while he appreciated that the district was looking at opportunities for alternative energy, educating children should be the priority.”
City Councilman Chuck Keister suggested that since the district had a bigger budget than the city, it should develop the remaining site into passive park use for the children and families of Marco Island, with maintenance paid for by the district.
Thompson said the district was interested in turning the property over to the city.
“We see this as an economic benefit to both the district and the city. The district will get to use the solar energy to pay the utilities of two schools and the city would get a piece of property worth about $3.5 million at no cost to you. We have no interest in keeping the land. We are in the business of schools.”
Thompson said the alternative is that the land sits there, an unused resource.
Keister said since the district did not seem interested in pursuing other education opportunities, it indicated the district was only interested in the money it could get from the land.
The meeting was not held to come to a final decision on the land use. The Collier County School District has applied for grants for the project for the solar panels, but will not hear back on those grants until mid-Febrauary.
In addition, the Collier County School Board has not formally met to vote on the matter, but board members have conceptually approved the plans.
Still, if the Collier County School Board should move forward with plans to put solar panels on the site, it would have to go through the Marco Island planning and zoning department and city council for final approval.
Many residents complained about how the process was moving forward.
“This is a partnership, not between the city and the school board, but between Dr. Thompson and United Energy Technologies,” said Greg West. “The people have spoken on the island. I suggest you listen to them.”