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New College ‘beautifies’ bayfront preserve, cutting trees for soccer and volleyball

Written by on Friday, May 24, 2024

Neighbors call the City of Sarasota for help, and – setting a precedent – the city does intervene.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: May 24, 2024

Host: They came without warning the neighbors: Work crews used a backhoe on Thursday to uproot at least a dozen trees on a piece of land owned by New College of Florida. Residents in the Uplands neighborhood were aghast about what’s happening at the large piece of parkland that separates them from the Sarasota Bay. But then, to everybody’s surprise, the City of Sarasota intervened. The WSLR news team has the details.

[sound of backhoe uprooting trees]

Johannes Werner: New College President Richard Corcoran himself was looking on Thursday morning, as surveyors were staking out the land, and a backhoe was uprooting and piling up about a dozen palm trees.

Neighbors are already anxious about New College plans to build a ‘Freedom Institute’ on that piece of waterfront. It would be the biggest building on campus yet, towering above the one-story homes in the Uplands. So on Thursday morning, a handful gathered on the land, frantically working their phones trying to find out what’s going on, and get the City of Sarasota to stop the clearing.

One of them was Karen Stack. She said she saw yellow ribbons around 40 trees.

Karen Stack: Well, a couple of days ago we noticed that many trees, we thought most of them, had a yellow tape around them, a caution tape. We weren’t sure what was happening. We couldn’t really get an answer from New College. They’re completely, it’s a wall between us and them as a community. And so I called the City of Sarasota to confirm that this is their property, and I went to the permitting office, and they were unable to find a permit to take down trees, and then today we came out and saw this big old pile of trees starting to form.

JW: So we’re seeing about a dozen cabbage palm trees now…

KS: At this point, right. There were, we counted about a total of 40 trees that had been tagged. And among them were many of these beautiful pines. The slash pines might have been part of this well before the Ringlings actually owned this property here. We spoke with the guy that was actually doing the cutting. He said he didn’t know about the permit, but the contractor probably did. But he didn’t have a name other than a first name. He didn’t have a phone number, he knew nothing. He could not provide us with any information. We also talked to the surveyors. They’ve been here, this is their second day here. And they are doing a survey on behalf of New College in order to put sports facilities here.

JW: So that’s what you know. I just saw Richard Corcoran walking the grounds. Did you have a chance to ask him a few questions?

KS: We haven’t seen him. He hasn’t come over here.

JW: According to neighborhood organizers, the City Arborist went to the college Friday, surveyed the situation, and requested that the work crew stop cutting trees. They agreed to stop. But on Friday afternoon, Corcoran returned to the preserve and directed workers to resume, which they did. The removed at least one slash pine and several more cabbage palms. As of Friday evening, the neighbors were hopeful the city will issue a stop order on Saturday, forcing the work crews to stop cutting any more trees.

Rendering of the planned soccer field. Courtesy New College

According to a press release posted on Thursday, New College is planning to build a soccer field and beach volleyball courts on the piece of parkland that separates the Uplands from Sarasota Bay, known as the Uplands Bayfront Preserve.

The sports facilities will “benefit our students and the greater community”, the press release said. As part of the construction, healthy cabbage palms will be uprooted and replanted in another part of the campus.

The press release framed the tree clearing and construction as part of a series of “campus beautification efforts”.

“There have been numerous campus beautification efforts over the last 12 months, several of which have already been completed and more that will be finalized before the Fall term. All of these projects have included consultations with environmental and biological experts to ensure the environmental footprint of New College is enhanced.”

The press release praised the earlier removal of invasive species from mangroves on that piece of land, freeing the mangroves to “grow and thrive” again.

The press release did not mention consultation of neighbors, but it did say “we are grateful for the support of our community”.

Jono Miller hosts a radio show about the environment on WSLR. He is also a retired environmental science professor at New College, who participated in the creation of a long-term campus development plan.

After inquiring via text, Miller got a call from Corcoran on Wednesday, saying the college was building six volleyball courts and a soccer field. Corcoran declined to say when the tree removal might start.

Miller does not mince words about the college seeking outside experts for this project.

Jono Miller: That’s a complete farce, because one of our alumna is an expert on South Florida slash pines. I’ve written a book and I’m an expert on cabbage palms. We have numerous students that have studied and have gone on to do research related to mangroves. We have a new botanist. We’ve just heard about this faculty member with a PhD. So New College, more than any other institution – with the possible exception of Selby Gardens – has more expertise related to the trees in question than whoever the heck they’ve hired. And their failure to consult with people that are more knowledgeable and instead pay people to provide the answers they’re looking for is disgraceful.

JW: Miller says the college administration’s plans violate the New College Campus Master Plan that has been approved by the college’s board of trustees and is still in force. For that particular piece of land, the plan foresees passive recreation and open-space use. That’s based on a 2005 memorandum of agreement between New College and the University of South Florida, when the two separated.

JM: This is not a beautification effort. It’s an effort to accommodate athletic activities that we previously didn’t have. And so they’re attempting to create facilities where these teams can practice, which is active recreation as opposed to passive recreation

JW: As to replanting the cabbage palms, Miller believes that most trees will be lost, because the cabbage palm clusters growing in the Uplands cannot be relocated. And as far as the college’s mangrove-saving, Miller does not see this as an achievement.

JM: In addition to removing exotic species, which I support, they removed a lot of native species that would be found immediately upgrading the mangroves. And then, in addition to that, they brought in fill, and they put additional soil and material from the Uplands area down close to the water, not all the way to the water’s edge but they brought in additional material. So again, we don’t know who these so-called experts, or what their credentials are. But I’d be willing to say categorically: Between our staff and our alums, we have more expertise related to mangroves than whoever they hired.

JW: So what’s next?

As of Friday evening, the organizers were still hoping the city will issue a stop order on Saturday. To be sure, there is no precedent for a city intervention; in past decades, New College has never consulted with the city over what to do with trees on campus.

Meanwhile, the neighbors and tree protectors are in conversation with the State Division for Historical Resources in Tallahassee New College should have informed before the tree removals on the historic property. They are also searching for the 2005 New College-USF memorandum. Finally – and in the meantime – they are appealing to New College trustees to tell the administration to respect the campus master plan.

JW: Reporting from the Uplands for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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