FGCU foundation declines developer's offer of 600-acre land donation

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Aerial view of new student residence buildings on FGCU campus on Feb. 14, 2012.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Greg Kahn/Staff Aerial view of new student residence buildings on FGCU campus on Feb. 14, 2012.

File 
 An aerial photo of what was to become Florida Gulf Coast University some time before construction began in 1995.

File An aerial photo of what was to become Florida Gulf Coast University some time before construction began in 1995.

FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw on NewsMakers 04-07-13.

FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw on NewsMakers 04-07-13.

Video from NBC-2

Florida Gulf Coast University has backed away from a developer’s offer to donate more than 600 acres for a future expansion of its sprawling campus in Estero.

The developer, O.J. Buigas, CEO of Private Equity Group in Fort Myers, expected the university’s foundation to approve the donation at its next meeting, June 5.

But it appears the deal was moving too fast for the university, with too many questions going unanswered.

After a meeting with the developer Friday, FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw sent a letter to Buigas, saying the foundation wouldn’t vote on the donation at its meeting in a few weeks and that he was canceling a non-binding letter of intent to accept the donation, which was endorsed by the university’s board of trustees and signed last month.

“It was not a gift agreement and there is a difference,” Bradshaw said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The letter of intent was an indication that we wanted to explore receiving that gift and the terms under which we would receive it.”

In his letter to Buigas, Bradshaw outlined some of the critical information that still was missing from the developer, including a survey of the property, a legal description of the land and just how much of the property would be buildable.

“This is potentially a large gift and a lot of complexity and it would behoove us, the university, to really be thorough in exploring the desirability and the feasibility of accepting the gift, on any terms,” Bradshaw said by phone.

Those explorations had barely begun and Buigas misunderstood how fast the foundation would move in making such an important decision, Bradshaw said, adding that he anticipated a presentation to the foundation’s board in June, but never a vote, as Buigas did.

“The sense of urgency that Mr. Buigas has or had, we didn’t have that sense of urgency, not when weighted against doing our due diligence,” Bradshaw said.

The university recently reached out to local experts in land use, planning and real estate law to ensure the protection of both university and foundation interests, Bradshaw said.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said, adding that a few weeks isn’t enough time to get all the questions that have surfaced answered.

The proposed land donation has drawn both praise and criticism. While some saw only positives for the university, the offer stirred environmental concerns and raised questions about how it might taint FGCU’s image as an environmental university.

Some applaud the university’s decision not to jump into a deal with the developer, whose donation was part of a much larger plan to create a master-planned, university-focused community on more than 4,500 acres adjacent to FGCU’s main campus. The plan includes student housing, a hotel, a research park and a golf course.

“It’s a prudent decision for the university to take its time,” said Wayne Daltry, a former director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council who once headed up Lee County’s Smart Growth department. “They have a master plan. It has been updated and it doesn’t show anything needed for new land over the next several years.”

The developer, he said, seems to be in a rush and “usually whenever you get a take it or leave it deal, leaving it is not a bad idea.”

Now, the university sits on 760 acres off Ben Hill Griffin Parkway.

Buigas’ project is controversial because most of the property owned by Private Equity Group falls into a density reduction groundwater recharge area, also known as DR/GR, created in the more rural areas of Lee County to protect the drinking water supply. Development would require special exceptions and changes to Lee County’s comprehensive development plan, which must be approved by county commissioners and state officials. The property is home to wetlands and wildlife.

Nancy Payton

Photo by lytle

Nancy Payton

Nancy Payton, a field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation in Southwest Florida, who spoke in favor of the project at last month’s meeting of FGCU’s board of trustees, said she was unhappy to learn about the university’s decision not to move ahead, which she characterized as seeming abrupt.

“I’m disappointed that the discussions are not continuing,” she said. “I thought there was some value to the university to join in, but I understand they need details and they weren’t available at this time.”

She supported the project because it includes plans to restore 1,264 acres for conservation, to create a 3-mile-long path for wildlife, and to re-establish water flow through the critical Stewart Cypress Slough. She said her group’s discussions with the developer will continue.

Buigas had no comment Tuesday. In a letter sent to Bradshaw late Monday, Buigas said the decision not to bring the donation proposal to the foundation for a vote in June was “extremely disappointing.”

Talks about the potential donation have been going on for about five months. In his letter, Buigas said he’s worked “tirelessly” to “formulate a historic donation that would assist Florida Gulf Coast University’s future growth and success,” only to be told by Bradshaw that he’d been “instructed” that a vote wouldn’t be taken at the foundation’s next meeting.

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Aerial view of FGCU campus on Feb. 14, 2012.

Photo by Greg Kahn

Greg Kahn/Staff Aerial view of FGCU campus on Feb. 14, 2012.

He said the decision “denies Private Equity Group the opportunity to present the information that was requested for the benefit of the foundation members.”

Buigas described the June deadline for FGCU’s acceptance of the land as “crucial in determining the university’s commitment to advance the development plan.” He said he planned to answer all questions before and during the June foundation meeting.

When pitching the project to FGCU’s board of trustees last month, Donald Schrotenboer, the president of real estate for Private Equity Group, said the project would go on with or without the university as a partner.

Bradshaw isn’t ruling out resuming discussions. He said he doesn’t plan to respond to Buigas’ letter, but that he’s open to sitting at the table with the developer to discuss the gift further and how negotiations might proceed in a different way.

Nora Egan Demers, an associate professor of biology at FGCU who has concerns about how the gift might reflect poorly on the university because of its mission to promote environmental sustainability, doesn’t believe talks are dead.

“It’s obviously going to resurface soon,” she said.

Despite the disagreement with the university, Buigas has committed to donating 40 acres of his property to FGCU by year’s end, honoring an agreement the former owners struck with the university years ago.

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