The Franklin County School Board received a lengthy standing ovation from a packed audience at a special meeting Monday evening.
It was not because the five members had decided on a deeply education-related issue, nor was the applause directly connected with the day-to-day matters within a district that is educating about 1,000 students each week.
Rather, it was all about land and money, and how about 3.6 acres on the corner of the former Apalachicola High School grounds, at 17th Street and Avenue L, fit into the future of the Hill neighborhood.
The crescendo of clapping came following the board’s decision to take no action on a proposed settlement offer in the Denton Cove court case that, if approved, would have paved the way for creation of an affordable housing complex first proposed to the school district in Dec. 2012.
George Thompson, the only school board member who was serving back then, moved to accept the mediation agreement that featured a settlement offer of nearly $426,000 from Denton Cove GP, LLC, developers of the more than $10 million project to create 52 low-income housing units, funded by the sale of federal tax credits, on the land.
Thompson’s motion died for lack of a second, without discussion. No school board member advanced a second item, a resolution that would have been needed to complete the deal.
The matter now heads back to the courtroom of Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, where a decision, and even a possible jury trial, could come by this summer regarding what obligations, if any, the school board has regarding the complicated ownership of this land, 1.62-acres of which were the public’s streets and alleys prior to the city giving them over to the school district 75 years ago to construct the segregated Wallace Quinn High School, and then later the integrated Apalachicola High School.
The cost of fighting the suit lodged by the Denton Cove developers weighed heavily in the analysis given the board by Tallahassee attorney Leonard Dietzen, the outside counsel whose firm has argued the school board’s position ever since last July.
At that point, the school board ended years of extending the sales contract for the 2.04 acres the district first agreed in Dec. 2014 to sell to Wendover Housing Partners, of Altamonte Springs, by going to court to ask the circuit judge to rule on whether the 1.62-acres of streets and alleys were included.
“They (Denton Cove) believes the whole thing is theirs,” said Dietzen. “We disagreed and asked a judge to resolve the matter quickly.”
Denton Cove responded by filing three counterclaims, alleging that the school board was obligated to convey the entire 3.66 acres, and to pay damages due to the board receiving “unjust enrichment” and for breaching “an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
In addition, in December Dodson granted a request from a local non-profit of civic activists, Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation Inc. (HAPPI) to intervene in the suit, which enabled them to supplement the arguments being made by the school board.
HAPPI’s opposition to the project is based on its advocacy to protect the city’s historic grid, and its members were among those spoke out Monday night in opposition to the settlement agreement.
Dietzen argued before the board that it would make sense to accept the settlement offer, given the risk involved.
“They’re saying they own the property the way contract was worded,” he said. “They wanted attorney fees, and if the judge determines they’re right they would be asking for $500,000.
“We’d have a fight well worth more than the property on that count,” Dietzen said.
“We’re trying to get the entire price of the land and get some of your attorneys’ fees paid,” he said. “The taxpayers’ money was going to be paid on attorney fees. The fight for attorney’s fees is going to be more than the land, far more than the land we believe we would have won.”
He said Denton Cove would have surely appealed any verdict that didn’t go their way, and possibly filed a federal Fair Housing Act claim, all of which would have added additional costs.
Dietzen said litigation costs would exceed $200,000 to $300,000.
“This is to buy certainty, at least try to accomplish the value of what the land is,” he said, noting that plaintiffs do not have to show discrimination intent, only that a government body’s decision would disproportionately impact a minority.
“That’s a heavy responsibility for a small school board,” he said. “There’s no certainty and it was going to take time to get to the Promised Land in court.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Dietzen said. “Fighting for principle is one thing, but spending twice for lawyers is another responsibility you have as board members. The past stuck in everybody’s craw and I understand it, but you have to deal with economics. Can you throw taxpayers’ money on a principle and that’s difficult when it’s triple the principle?”
Board member Pam Marshall said Denton Cove had misled the school board, indicating the project would provide homes for teachers, when the data shows that all of them would be above the income limits.
“How can they claim it (the whole parcel) was sold to them?” she asked. “I just don't see where they have a leg to stand on.”
But School Board Attorney Barbara Sanders said the issue of deception did not factor into this case. “That was never going to be an issue,” she said. “No one has ever said we’re not going to close because we were misled.
“We accepted extension money three times,” Sanders said. “That question, as hard as it is to accept, that maybe there was not good faith or fair dealings, was not going to be resolved in this lawsuit.”
In her argument on behalf of HAPPI, Bonnie Davis urged the board to reject the settlement, and to eventually consider a proposal to grant the land to HAPPI in exchange for the group giving them land and property of equal value in which a teacher could live.
“This 183-yearold plat contains the bones of time and connects with the past and present,” she said.
She, and several speakers who followed, deplored the actions of the city commission, which got out of the lawsuit, and left it all in the school board’s lap.
“We understand you didn’t ask for this problem. If you no longer need the street and alleys for education, the right thing to do is give them back to the people of Apalachicola.”
She said HAPPI would serve as “a vessel of transition” and said donation of a lot and pledges of $75,000 have already come in for construction of a house.
“The will to do it is there,” Davis said. “We can do it less than 36 months.”
An Apalachicola resident who practiced law in Tallahassee, she said “the law is with you on this. No one can promise you an outcome. If we don’t resist their pressure tactics then Denton Cove will win without ever having to defend what they want on the merit, and that would be an irretrievable loss.
The torch has been passed to you five to protect our history, to do the right thing and give the streets back to the people of Apalachicola,” Davis said.
She said HAPPI believes strongly in the school board’s case. “We don’t think their counterclaims are valid, and if we did, we don’t want for you to gamble with taxpayers’ money.”
Davis’ stance was echoed by Apalachicola resident John Alber, also a lawyer, who took part in the mediation that gave rise to the settlement offer. He contrasted two cities, which have had far different results when they violated the structure of their original plats.
Apalachicola resident Despina George, a native of the city, talked of the generosity of Wallace Quinn, who gave the land for Quinn High School in the late 40s,
“That was remarkable for that time,” she said. “It was a privilege and a great public purpose was to be served.”
She stressed that the donation of the land was a legacy to be preserved, and that building a housing project on it “will forever change the character, crushing that section. This (HAPPI’s proposal) honors the rich legacy. What better example to send for students? Please don’t sell us out.”
The board also heard from Diane Brewer, who champions the Save Our Squares group. “Think bigger than the boundaries of a contract,” she said.
The board heard from several others, all in opposition, over the next 90 minutes, including Dody Alber, Jilly and Ed Michaels, Robin Vroegop, Leslie McWilliams, Pete Whitesell, Kay Carson, Warrenetta Key, Valentina Webb, Elizabeth Zingarelli Milliken, Holly and Creighton Brown, Gene Smith, Dave McLain, Jamie Liang, Allan Jones, Lori Foster, Grayson Shepard and ABC School teachers Lindsay Shepard and Gina Taranto, who offered the line of the night.
“The grossly misrepresented this project,” said Taranto. “They are not nice people and they’re slimy.”
Following the vote, Board Chair Stacy Kirvin offered some words.
“Funding is down, our (student) count is down,” he said. “This seriously impacts our ability to give raises.
“Are you with us to the point of helping with attorney fees?” he asked the audience. “Every dollar we spend comes out of a classroom.”