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UWF makes deal with developers due to loss of funds from state cuts

When the Florida legislature saddled the university system with $300 million in budget cuts, they did so with the expectation that schools would tap into their financial reserves to weather the economic storm.

Now, the University of West Florida is tapping into a different kind of reserve to cope with its $11.9 million share of the cuts: land.

The University has established a non-profit direct support organization, called Business Enterprises Inc., to pursue partnerships with private industry.

In its quest for revenue, the University corporation has set its eye on approximately 150 acres of UWF land on Santa Rosa Island.

Developing it would disrupt current recreational, research and educational activities. It would eliminate some of the most diverse land on the island, including critical habitat for the threatened Piping Plover.

And it might not even be legal.

Matt Altier, CEO of Business Enterprises, Inc. said the land would be wrapped into a request for proposals, to be issued in early May.

This is not the first time the property has been leered at by developers.

As early as 1980, three years after the University obtained the lease for the land, some were chanting “conference center.”

However, a biological impact study concluded developing the land would jeopardize fragile ecosystems and recommended that it be set aside for recreation and research.

“It is perhaps the most ecologically diverse piece of property on the barrier island,” Richard Snyder said recently. Snyder, a biology professor at UWF, heads the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation.

“It encompasses seagrass beds, a shallow lagoon, salt marsh, maritime forest, secondary dunes, primary dunes and beach front,” he said. “It is, perhaps, the best piece of property on the entire island from an ecological point of view. That’s a good reason not to build on it.”

There are other reasons, as well.

The Center is currently using the property for research into the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Snyder said a scientist from Florida State University was also using the site for spill-related research. In the past, the land has been used to study how natural systems recover from hurricanes.

“It’s an outdoor laboratory,” Snyder said. “We use it for tours, education and research.”

The Santa Rosa Island property is also used for recreation. The Florida National Scenic Trail passes through it, and it is common to find boaters parked on the shore of Santa Rosa Sound.

In 2006, an ad hoc committee was convened by University President John Cavanaugh to recommend a best use for the property.

They followed the 1980 study, also noting legal limitations to how the University could develop the land.

The land is actually owned by the State and leased to UWF for
99 years. The lease stipulates that the land be used only for “educational and recreational purposes.”

If not, the State reserved the right to revoke the lease.

Klaus Meyer-Arendt, a professor of environmental studies at UWF, was the lead author of the 2006 report. He also takes his classes on field trips to the island to study geomorphology.

“If we plan some crazy things, like building the next Disney World, then the State’s just going to say ‘no’ and take it back,” he said.

Altier disagrees. “There are many things that could be developed in line with enhancing and creating more opportunity for education and research,” he said in an email interview. “Doing nothing is one option but we should explore our potential.”

The land is also subject to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. This law, passed in 1982, would prevent any federal money being used in development of the land.

All costs and risks would have to be borne by the developer. This is especially significant considering that the land is vulnerable to hurricane damage.

Altier said that all the current restrictions on the land would be incorporated into the Request for Proposals, so developers would know what they were getting into.

“I think it’s insane that the University take something like this on,” Meyer-Arendt said.

Snyder said he is not so hopeful.

“There’s all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t (develop it), but they probably will,” he said. “I hate to say that I’m giving up, but you can only stand against a tidal wave so long.”

Terry Strickland
Contributing Writer 

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