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Sansom-backed project may have a parking problem

The proposed airport building at the heart of a political controversy that upended the power structure in Tallahassee now faces the most routine of obstacles.

Parking.

Destin city planners say the project, which progressed this week when the Okaloosa County Commission approved a finalized sublease for the land, is likely to need more spaces. Why? Because the original development order city officials approved for the site was for an aircraft hangar. Now, the building will be an emergency education center for Northwest Florida State College.

"More than likely they will need more parking spaces," Ken Gallander, community development director for the city of Destin, said in a recent interview.

The need for more parking (and a traffic study) highlights the controversial history of the building. Although college officials have insisted their building was conceived independently of anything else, the project carries the history of a maintenance hangar that a politically connected developer had proposed for the same land.

In fact, it is the development order city officials had granted developer Jay Odom that the college has used to advance the project. And the sublease approved by the commission Tuesday is between the college and Odom, who controls a large chunk of land at Destin Airport.

Originally, Odom proposed a $6 million aircraft hangar and maintenance operation to complement his jet business, which is located on adjacent land. His plan for public financing fell through, but soon after, the college was awarded $6 million in state money, arranged by Odom's friend, Rep. Ray Sansom.

The college, Sansom and Odom insist the training facility has no relationship with Odom's business. But a grand jury in Tallahassee is looking into that and other questions regarding Sansom and his relationship with the college. Earlier this week, Sansom withdrew as House speaker so that he could focus on his legal troubles. He has resigned from his $110,000 job at the college.

The college now plans to put the project out to bid. After that, when formal building plans are sent to the city of Destin, parking and traffic will have to be addressed.

Gallander said he will wait until Northwest Florida State College submits plans but said it's likely the parking issue will require some redesigning or a smaller building footprint. He said Friday that not all of the building may be utilized for a school use, so not as much parking may be required.

There is another lingering issue: whether the college has a long enough lease to justify the use of state education dollars.

According to state regulation, projects built on leased land with public education capital outlay dollars must obtain a lease of at least 40 years "or the life expectancy of the permanent facilities constructed thereon, whichever is longer."

The sublease approved by the County Commission Tuesday calls for a flat 40 years.

E-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau show the college knew there was an issue because Odom originally had only a 20-year lease agreement on his land at Destin Airport.

"We have to have an iron-clad 40 years before we can spend PECO dollars," Gary Yancey, a college vice president, wrote to a county airport official in November 2007.

In May 2008, Odom's attorney, Matt Gaetz, contacted the county to say Odom wanted to exercise a clause allowing him to double the life of his lease, which eventually was granted.

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Sansom-backed project may have a parking problem 02/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 10:29am]
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