MARCO ISLAND — Collier County School Board members may find themselves in a clash with Marco Island City Council members as the school district considers letting a nonprofit group take a piece of land on Marco Island under its wings.
Marco Island City Council Chairman Frank Recker wasn’t pleased with the proposal that will go before the school board on Feb. 15. The draft lease agreement would allow the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation, a nonprofit formed last year seeking to further protect Tract K’s nesting American Bald Eagles, sole use of the District-owned land for five years with a potential to extend.
“I’m very disappointed because I’ve always believed the city should have the final say in the use of Tract K,” Recker said.
However, the proposed lease poses an opportunity for the School District. The vacant land near Tigertail Beach on Marco Island has been inhabited by protected American Bald Eagles for several consecutive nesting seasons limiting any potential use of the land.
The Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation seeks to protect the eagles by preventing a planned charter high school or other development on the 11.6-acre parcel, which was deeded to the District by a prominent island developer, Deltona Corporation, in 1989 at a cost of $10.
The Foundation plans to create a “passive park,” or a park with no activities or events that would disturb eagles, such as sports, on the site.
The draft agreement is for a five year term beginning May 1 and ending April 30, 2016 with an option to extend the lease or purchase the land. The Foundation will pay the district $30,000 annually in quarterly installments of $7,500 each.
“This agreement, if approved, will preserve the environmental integrity of the property for the eagles and residents of Marco Island and provide some revenue to the District to help with our financial challenges,” said District spokesman Joe Landon.
It will also prevent Marco’s planned charter high school from being there in the foreseeable future. The charter high school could pose an economic threat to Lely High School, the currently zoned school for Marco Island residents, because state and local dollars would follow students to a charter school.
Jane Watt, chairwoman and president of Marco Island Discovery Center and Academy, the planned charter high school, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The charter high school looks to open temporarily this August in modulars, or trailers, on a leased site that is near the gated community of Key Marco on San Marco Road. The temporary site is inhabited by Gopher Tortoises, which will require special permitting to be removed.
Recker said the School District’s lease to the Eagle Sanctuary Foundation would serve a blow to the charter school’s future, as the leaders had their sights set on using Tract K as the eventual long-term location for their school.
Despite there being no explicit requirement in the deeding of the land to the district, Recker is among many Marco Island residents and officials who believe Deltona’s intent in giving the land so cheaply to the District was for it to become the location of a school.
Recker had recommended on several occasions that the city consider a two-year first purchase option at a cost of $100. It would have required the District to hold the property while council sought community feedback on Tract K’s use. Recker’s recommendation did not pick up steam with other council members and now they could lose a say in the matter for five years or more.
“That’s why I urged council to tie it up for a couple years at virtually no cost, so that the people could decide through public hearings what, if any use, there should be. Should we buy it? Should we let it go? Should we not care what the school board does with it?” Recker said of the questions that he believed should be posed to residents.
“I think it’s unfortunate if the school board ratifies it because I think it takes it away from the people’s decision,” he said.
Recker, and the majority of City Council members, have voiced support for the charter high school, even if some were less direct on their desires for Tract K. Some wanted the city to make it a park; a group of entrepreneurs sought to make a solar demonstration site there. So far, almost every idea attracted some heat from at least one segment of the island or county population.
“We all love eagles, but there are other things we love too,” Recker said.
Other aspects of the agreement include:
n The foundation must pay to maintain the land, including mowing and insurance.
n All improvements made to the land by the Foundation will require District approval first.
n The Foundation plans to add fencing and pedestrian pathways, which will be done at their cost and which may have to be removed if the District requests it at the end of the lease.