Friday, December 15, 2017

Land dispute may halt Lakeland university building

TALLAHASSEE — A dispute over the transfer of donated land could halt the ongoing construction of a campus for Florida's newest state university in Lakeland.

The chairman of a Board of Governors committee overseeing the birth of Florida Polytechnic University said Friday that he will ask the board to stop the project if the matter is not resolved before its next regular meeting June 19-21 in Orlando. Construction of the first building, expected to cost $100 million, already has begun.

The Williams Acquisition Holding Co. donated land to the University of South Florida for its polytechnic branch in 2006. The Legislature passed a law this year stripping the Lakeland campus from USF and immediately creating the state's 12th public university to take its place.

The question that could complicate construction arises from a clause in the agreement to give Florida Polytechnic title to the land.

Williams included a reverter clause saying the property would return to the company if the state ever used it for a nonuniversity purpose.

"We should not build this building with that kind of reverter," said board member Morteza "Mori" Hosseini, who chairs the panel's Select Committee on Florida Polytechnic University.

Hosseini said he wants to see what Gov. Rick Scott thinks about the matter and asked State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan and the board's attorney to look into it.

Board chairman Dean Colson told Hosseini his instincts were right.

"We can't put a $100 million building on property that has a reverter clause in it," Colson said.

Stephen Mitchell, a Tampa real estate lawyer who serves on USF's Board of Trustees, said Williams has agreed to the donation transfer but has insisted on the reverter clause. The original donation to USF had a similar clause. It subsequently was removed, but Williams now wants it restored, Mitchell said. The holding company is a subsidiary of the Williams Companies Inc., a Tulsa, Okla., energy firm.

Mitchell did not dispute Hoesseini's criticism, but said Williams agreed to the transfer only after extensive negotiations.

The board, meanwhile, passed several items recommended by Hosseini's committee to facilitate the new school's takeover of the campus and other issues related to the transfer. That included authorization for USF to continue managing the construction project until Florida Polytechnic is able to take over.

The board and Scott are in the processes of appointing trustees for the new school, which doesn't yet have a president, staff, faculty or students.

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