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MARCO ISLAND — Tract K will remain a large piece of grass for the Collier County School District to mow.
Superintendent Dennis Thompson said plans to put a solar project on the 11.6-acre parcel, which is located on the west side of Tigertail Court between Somerset and Century drives on Marco Island, will not move forward following last week’s announcement that two grant proposals did not make the short list of energy projects to be funded by the Florida Energy and Climate Commissioner.
The project would have provided solar energy to power Tommie Barfield Elementary School and the Marco Island Charter Middle School.
“We thought it was a good, productive use for the land. It needed the approval of the Marco Island City Council and the Collier County School Board,” he said. “We could proceed without the grant money, but there is not the political wherewithal to move the project forward.”
The news comes about two months after Marco Island residents vehemently opposed the idea to put the solar project on the property. The project would have used about 4 acres of the land and the school district hoped to deed the remaining 7.6 acres to Marco Island to use as the city saw fit.
“There is a small, vocal minority opposed to the project,” Thompson said. “Without a referendum, we won’t know how the majority of Marco Island feels about the project. People who are against something tend to come to meetings.”
Most of the Marco residents who spoke out against the project during a January joint meeting of the Collier County School Board and Marco Island City Council spoke in favor of what they believe is the true purpose of Tract K — a school.
Marco Island resident Bill McMullan, who opposed the project on Tract K, said he was pleased with the news.
“I was encouraged to see that Dr. Thompson has obliquely acknowledged that the Marco-constituent base should have a say in the use of this property — hence the 3,400 e-mails and letters sent to the Governors Office on Energy — which shut down the superintendent’s plan to allow commercial use of this property,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The superintendent is a newcomer to the area ... and until now was probably not aware of the passion Marcoites have for Tract K.”
Tract K has been sitting vacant since the Deltona Corp. deeded the property to the school district. In March 2006, the Collier County School Board discussed selling the land. That suggestion was met with anger from Marco city officials and residents, several of whom wanted the district to build a school on the site.
The School Board decided against selling, but then there was talk that Marco and the district could find a piece of land owned by the city to swap with Tract K. But an acceptable swap could not be found.
Furthermore, the city and district discovered a few problems with building a school on Tract K. There is an eagle’s nest in a tree in the middle of the site. While the district could build its solar panels 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. A school could not be built on the site until it had been vacated by the eagles for at least six years.
Marco residents argue that the land had been deeded to the district for a school site. The district argues that the deed indicates the land must be used for “school purposes,” which would cover things like a solar project to power schools.
Thompson reiterated Tuesday that the district has no plans to build a school on the island. Florida statutes require the school district to submit planning documents that include an educational plant survey, according to the Florida Department of Education. The district must show the need for new facilities based on the number of students or expected number of students as projected by data. “We have 1,588 vacant high school seats in Collier County,” he said. “The state will not allow us to build a high school.”
But some Marco residents are not looking for another Lely High School or Naples High School on the land. They would like to see a charter high school, similar to the Marco Island Charter Middle School.
Thompson said Tuesday that the School Board is not open to participating in the construction of a charter high school on Marco.
“It is not going to be a project the board undertakes,” he said.
The Collier County School Board and the Marco Island Charter School Board joined forces a few years ago to build the Marco Island Charter Middle School. The district provided $17 million to build the school, which sits next to Tommie Barfield Elementary School.
Thompson said a similar situation to build a high school will not happen.
“If someone wants to build a high school on Marco Island, they are going to have to buy the land and find the financing,” he said.
McMullan said regardless of ownership, the property should be developed for the use of Marco residents. He said consensus of the community is that the property should be used for sports activities, educational facilities or a park.
Tract K might still go to the city’s hands. At a Marco Island City Council meeting Monday evening, council members discussed purchasing the property. It was not an agenda item, but was brought up during council communication.
Councilman Jerry Gibson said he hoped the council could just lay low on the issue for at least a year.
“After what we’ve just come through, nothing is going to happen right now. I think we’re rubbing salt in an open wound,” he said.
Some council members indicated that the council and the School Board would have to mend some fences before a true dialogue could happen.
“Right now, we don’t have a School Board with open ears,” said Councilman Rob Popoff.
Popoff said the city could buy it, but doesn’t currently have the money. The city could lobby the School Board for some generosity, but Popoff said he doesn’t see it working.
“Even if the eagles leave we have to wait six years before we can do anything.” he said.
Council Chairman Bill Trotter added that a workshop should limit public comment so council and city officials can work through options of moving forward without further offending school officials with heated public debates on the issue.
“We don’t want to polarize this issue anymore than we already have,” he said.
The council will address the issue at a workshop at 3 p.m. Monday, March 16, in the Community Room at City Hall, 51 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco.
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Marco Eagle reporter Kelly Farrell contributed to this report.