Land dispute adds obstacle to Florida Poly construction
LINDSAY PETERSON The Tampa Tribune
Published: June 8, 2012
Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:08 PM
The company that donated the land where the new Florida Polytechnic University is being built in Lakeland now seeks conditions that could halt construction, adding a significant obstacle to the creation of the state’s 12th university.
A member of the state Board of Governors suggested Friday that he would push to stop work on a $100 million campus building because the original landowner, Williams Acquisition Holding Co., wants to limit the state’s use of the land.
Williams, a Tulsa, Okla.-based gas pipeline company, donated 530 acres to the University of South Florida for its new Lakeland campus in 2003. It’s at the corner of a housing and office development Williams is planning on Interstate 4.
The Florida Legislature passed a bill this session requiring USF to turn over all its Lakeland assets to a newly created Florida Polytechnic University. But the I-4 property transfer can’t go through until Williams agrees.
The Board of Governors, which is overseeing creation of the new university, learned during a conference call meeting Friday that Williams is placing conditions on the transfer.
It’s asking for a "reverter clause" stating that it would get the property back if the state used it for any non-university purpose, said Stephen Mitchell, a real estate attorney on the USF Board of Trustees.
Board of Governors member Morteza "Mori" Hosseini called that "unacceptable." He leads the board committee monitoring Poly’s creation and raised questions about the property transfer and Williams’ conditions at a committee meeting last month.
The state is spending about $100 million to construct a classroom building on the property.
"For us to have a reverter clause in that type of agreement is mindboggling," he said Friday, suggesting that the state might have other legitimate uses for parts of the 530-acre property - office buidings, for instance.
If university officials and Williams cannot negotiate the transfer without the clause, "I will be asking our board … to put a stop to construction because we will be in danger," Hosseini said.
He said he planned to talk to the governor about the risk and asked, "Do we want to go forward and spend our money?"
Creating the university was a priority of state Sen. JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who is leaving the Senate this year because of term limits.
He pushed through a bill this session that immediately established the new university, shutting down the USF Lakeland campus. That undercut a Board of Governors’ plan to turn the USF campus into a separate university after it had met several conditions to prove it was ready to stand alone.
At the Board of Governors committee meeting last month, officials discussed the challenges they face in creating a new university from scratch. It has no students, no faculty, no accreditation and no buildings.
Hosseini hinted at the tension on Friday, saying the new university couldn’t obtain academic accreditation until it graduated at least one class but that it also must focus on building quality programs.
It has a distinct mission to produce graduates in science, engineering and technology.
On a more optimistic note, he said that the board had received 54 applications to fill five positions on the new university’s board of trustees. The governor will fill six positions and had also received dozens of applications.
The trustee nominating committee plans to present its recommendations to the full Board of Governors at its meeting in Orlando this month.