Commissioners Push Hopes for Research Park Near Poly

Surrounding a largely procedural land-use change, Lakeland city commissioners say they see risks to their long-term desires to keep the Florida Polytechnic University area available for high-impact economic development tied to the school.

Today, they will decide whether to grant a change in designation for approximately 2,400 acres of land generally south and west of Florida Polytechnic University from a “development of regional impact,” or DRI, to a “planned unit development,” or PUD, two types of regulatory packages that define owners’ rights and responsibilities.

City planning staff members say the change to the nearly 20-year-old designation is not significant and that the city has not lost any of its building conditions in the change. Williams Companies, the owner, is requesting the change to remove layers of governmental oversight as allowed by Florida law, according to its representatives.  

DRIs were once required to ensure cities and counties near major developments had a say in how they are built, but the designation has fallen out of favor in recent years. PUDs, in contrast, are managed only by the host  municipality.  

But by opening the issue, commissioners became aware that the existing agreement with Williams — an Oklahoma-based energy company — granted building rights at odds with the commission’s desire to keep the university area free from warehouse development.

Williams property land-use plan:

Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who has been a vocal advocate for saving the property for advanced development, told her colleagues they needed to prevent the land from becoming soaked in low-wage, low-impact warehousing. 

“I have no right to come into their (Williams) business; it’s private land, it’s a private business, and yet it’s the future of our region, (it’s) of monumental impact,” she said in an impassioned speech Friday during a commission workshop. 

“Every single meeting I’m going to be talking about this land and how important it is to our educational future, to our jobs. I need my kids and grandkids to have jobs that match their degrees,” she added. “We’re attractive for our colleges and universities but we can’t keep them (graduates) here, and more warehouses will not change that. It will keep our status quo, and our status quo is unacceptable.”

Video: Commission discussion of the Williams project on Friday

Agenda Study & Committees 2019.10.18 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

Though not matched by her intensity, her colleagues seemed to agree with their interest in preventing the land from being used for low-value development. 

“I’m concerned if we’re not careful this will look like a bunch of residential houses and warehouses so when those companies come we won’t have land for them,” Commissioner Scott Franklin said at an agenda study earlier this month.

The change in designation is likely to succeed today, as the city has limited power to add new restrictions as a condition for the change, city staff members said. 

“There are existing entitlements we can’t take away,” Community and Economic Development Director Nicole Travis said. “Hindsight is 20/20 always, but we need to be aware these entitlements exist.”

Those entitlements — “by right” uses of the land allowed by the previous agreement — does not prevent warehouses from being built on top of land set aside for “research park” adjacent to the university.  

“It’s not that we’re resistant to (Williams) or unappreciative of that (redesignation) process, it’s that we have at a designated use for this area, and we can’t squander it; we can’t be as compliant as we normally would like to be,” Mayor Bill Mutz told LkldNow.

Madden earlier this month proposed the city could purchase the land set aside for business park. Though sympathetic, her colleagues have been reluctant to go that far.

Still, the six commissioners present at Friday’s agenda study directed City Manager Tony Delgado to communicate with Williams’ representatives to find out how much it wants for the land, in part and in whole. Franklin was absent for the meeting but gave comments two weeks earlier. 

View the Williams property ordinance that the commissioners will consider here or at the end of this article.

One of the issues raised by commissioners is that Williams has not been the most eager of sellers, they said based on conversations with Realtors and developers they say have had interest in parts of the land. 

“They expect us to make these offers but we know people have made these offers,” Mutz said. “It’s like you’re negotiating with a ghost.” 

He wouldn’t name names, but said, “I know there has been a singular person creating a deal who can’t get one done, can’t get to a yes — no matter what they do, they cant get to a yes.”

Mutz said he couldn’t say what he would recommend for the city, but said once the price is known, it will be easier to set a course. Less likely is that the city would buy it, but it could also be possible the city could act as a facilitator for a purchase from multiple entities. 

“This is a big gamble, a very large piece, and a lot of it is unusable in acreage, but it is a pivotal future for this county if we’re going to get a research park anywhere; if there’s going to be a Lake Nona-like application in Polk County, it’ll be there,” Mutz said. 

Lake Nona is a planned community near Orlando International Airport that combines university and private biomedical research facilities, residential areas and commercial districts.

This sounds good, but by discussing this now the commission is conflating two issues, said Jim Studiale, Lakeland’s previous director of Community Development who in retirement is working as a consultant for Williams and other groups.

The commission should pass the reclassification request, he said. Anything above that is a separate issue. 

As for fears that Williams is going to part out its property to development that will hinder Lakeland’s economic future, Studiale told LkldNow they are unfounded based on the company’s contributions to Lakeland.

The reclassification will make it easier to sell the land, Studiale said, and after a lull in interest, “they’re starting to be serious about selling the whole thing.” 

The total Williams Lakeland holding is about 5,000 acres of former mine land, half of it most useful for conservation, and with the rest, “that 2,500 acres: they took a sow’s ear and made a silk purse,” Studiale said. 

Charlie Gray of GrayRobinson law firm told commissioners his client, Williams, has invested significantly in the property, in the order of $30 million in improvements. It also donated more than 500 acres of land donated to build Florida Polytechnic.

The company ended up doing more than originally agreed to make the area work for new development, he said. 

But “we’ve gotten stalled on the deal and things changed. The university is a citadel, a cloister, so there’s no chance to develop around it. So a lot of things did not come which were expected (in those early days),” Gray said.

Theresa Maio, the head of the city’s planning division, said through the years Lakeland has spent around $50 million in improvements within the area, as well.  

Some of the urgency surrounding the commission’s search for levers to pull is precipitated by rumors of an ongoing warehouse development deal, Madden told LkldNow. Her feeling that if it is lost, it’ll be lost for good, and once the first warehouse is down, more will come

What do city leaders want?

Planners, designers, elected officials and economic development professionals will be presenting a preview of a proposed “Innovation District” which would encompass portions of the Williams property and sections in Auburndale and unincorporated Polk County surrounding Florida Polytechnic University.

The governments of Polk County, Lakeland and Auburndale have been working with the Central Florida Development Council to come up with a vision for the area that would combine high-value research groups and adjacent industries, new neighborhoods and commercial corridors similar to Lake Nona outside Orlando. 

The Central Florida Development Council is hosting a preview of the proposal from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Innovation, Science and Technology Building at Florida Polytechnic University.

The vision itself carries little to no legislative weight, but is intended to act as a guide for development by the three contributing governments.

Members of the public are invited to attend, though reservations are appreciated. To respond to the invitation, the CFDC asks residents to email Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org

The ordinance the City Commission considers today:

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Please donate now.