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Viewers respond on Lee Schools spending $63M on vacant land

Viewers respond on Lee Schools spending $63M on vacant land

By Matt Grant. CREATED Nov 7, 2011

We're hearing from many of you on what the Lee County School District should do with hundreds of acres of land, sitting empty and costing you.

Back in 2005, the district paid 6.8 million dollars for this 19-acre grass field down palomino road in Fort Myers.  Since then, the district has had to pay an adjacent gated community and country club $20,000 bucks a year for maintenance fees. 

Public records show the district owns 28 lots,  totalling more than 902 acres of vacant land.   So we asked what you think the district should do.

David posting on Facebook:  "I think it should be leased until they can get what they paid for it or more."

"This is nothing but a money pit that tax payers are paying for."

But not everyone agrees.

Colin saying: "But it's an investment, everyone is a real estate investor in SWFL.”

Ron posting: "Keep the land,or everyone will complain when they need new schools and have nowhere to put them.  Property values are beginning to rise and costs are going up."

FORT MYERS - You're paying millions for empty land that's not being used for anything, a Fox 4 investigation has learned.

The Lee County School District is holding onto 902 acres of vacant property. Since 2003, you've paid out $63 million for land that's never been touched, public records show.

The district calls it an investment but others say it's a waste.

Driving down Palomino Lane in Fort Myers, a 19-acre grass field doesn't exactly stand out. There's no school, no buildings. Just a sign which says the property is owned by Lee county Schools and "may be" used in the future.

Documents show the district paid $6.8 million for the empty lot back in 2005.

"I would say based on what was going on in that area in '05 it was a good sale," said Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson.

But that sale was subject to yearly dues. According to an agreement, the district has to pay The Renaissance, an adjacent gated community and country club, $20,000 a year for maintenance fees.

"There are maintenance fees just like if you lived in a homeowners association," said district spokesperson Joe Donzelli.

But former school board member Bob Chilmonik doesn't remember those maintenance fees being discussed when he voted for the sale. It's a decision he now regrets.

"It is a waste of money, it's absolutely a waste," said Chilmonik. "We've over-borrowed and bought a lot of property that we may not be able to use for the next 20 or 30 years."

So how much property does the district own?

According to public records, the district is sitting on 902.7 acres of vacant land spread out over 28 pieces of property.

One of them is a half acre piece of land donated 100 years on Cayo Costa, which is an island state park only accessible by water.

"If we don't need it sell it," said board member Don Armstrong, who says the district should make use of this empty land.

Armstrong says the district is buying too much at a time when existing schools like Tice Elementary are in need of repairs.

"We need to look at different ways to save money," said Armstrong. "To hold on to land that might not be used for 20 years, little ridiculous isn't it?"

But the district says it's not ridiculous and say comparing empty land to Tice is like comparing "apples to cinder blocks."

"It's not a waste; what it is is planning for the future," said Donzelli. "You have to understand the district is in a position we can't just be looking short term we have to look term."

"We're spending $20,000 a year to maintain property that sits empty," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant. "How do you respond to those who might call that a waste?"

"See me in 15 to 20 years," said Donzelli. "When there's something on that site."

For now those sites sit empty. And if the district tried to offload them in today's market the county says it would be a tough sell.

"There's no way they could get what they paid for it," said Wilkinson.

"Taxpayers would take a huge hit if they sold it?," asked Grant.

"It could be looked at that way sure," said Wilkinson.

According to minutes from previous board meetings, the idea of leasing out unused land for cell phone towers or agricultural purposes has been tossed around.

There is still no word what the district plans to do with all this empty land.

To see the full-list of land the district owns click on "Vacant land owned by Lee County School District" above.

Matt Grant, Reporter