Lee schools pause real estate deals

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Lee County School board meeting

The Lee County School District has paused buying or selling real estate over the next six to eight months. During that time, a study will be conducted to highlight a long-term, strategic plan for real estate as Lee County’s buildout of available, developable land continues

The district will begin the study before the end of the year. It will take six to eight months to complete, said Kathie Ebaugh, director of planning for the Lee County School District. Davis Demographics, a California-based, school demographer, will conduct the study at a cost of $130,000.

“Then we’ll have a better understanding of where we have land, where we need land,” said Ebaugh, who has a background in community planning. “Because of ever-changing demographics in the county, maybe we don’t need what we have in the present. Trying to forecast where you’re going to need schools is always a little bit of a challenge.”

Enter Dan O’Berski, a real estate broker with Trinity Commercial Group, who advises the school district on real estate trends.

“We have a fantastic staff that has asked us to make sure we’re in the right places at the right time,” O’Berski said. “We made it intentional to find ways to not overpay. Can we expand certain parcels so we don’t have to buy new pieces? We’ve had to be very frugal.

“My role is not to choose the locations. I don’t choose where we’re growing,” he said. “The market is making that choice. My job is to find property at prices that make sense. We want to be forward-thinking.”

THINKING LONG-TERM

The district doesn’t always get things right in the short-term, Ebaugh said. But that can pay off in the long run. Efforts were made to purchase more land in Cape Coral, for example, between 2000 and 2010.

“[From] 2010 to 2020, Cape Coral was stagnant for student growth,” Ebaugh said. “And the fastest-growing student-growth area was Lehigh. In the 2000s, we actually purchased a lot of land in the Cape Coral area. It may not be where we need land right now. It doesn’t mean we should get rid of it. Just because it shifted, doesn’t mean it can’t shift back.”

LOOKING BACK

In 2018, the district listed nine parcels for sale with the intention of raising money to build new schools on other land. Of those nine parcels, only one sold; one is under contract; a third was pulled from the market and is being used to build a school off Three Oaks Parkway on 69 acres. The lone sale of those nine parcels was a .23-acre residential lot the district had owned since 1977 at 1401 NE 1st Place in Cape Coral. The district sold it for $14,000 in June 2020.

The other six parcels were removed from the market for reasons varying from environmental impacts, zoning issues for potential buyers and studying for future school district use.

The district also pulled about 10 acres off the market at 14701 Six Mile Cypress Parkway, land fronting its south Fort Myers bus depot. “That’s a very hot market,” O’Berski said. But the available land lies in front of the school district’s south Fort Myers bus depot. Should the district need to expand the depot, and the school district sold the land, that opportunity would have been wasted.

“If we have more buses and have more needs, the cost to relocate could be enormous,” he said. “We sat down and made some hard decisions and pulled that back from the market.”

PLANNING AHEAD

In October, the district paid $2.9 million for a 184-acre parcel at 17250 State Road 82, just across from Lehigh Acres. The same parcel sold for $7.34 million in 2007, just as real estate prices in the region and throughout the country were reaching their apex before the Great Recession.

Right now, the district has no plans to build a school there. But it is a strategic site, just east of the eventual, planned cut-through of Alico Road, which in a few years is planned to connect with State Road 82.

“We want to get it before we have a need,” Ebaugh said. “In order for us to build a school, it will take somewhere between three and four years to build. You’re at three to four years for design and construction. If you have to add the six months to a year of property negotiation and due diligence on top of that—that’s too late. We need to have the properties in house when we need them.”

BUILDING UP, NOT OUT

The district also looks for ways to expand existing campuses. It is planning a $50 million expansion of Riverdale High School as that area continues to surge with growth of families.

Expanding existing schools was more complex than it sounded, Ebaugh said. Inserting more students meant needing to expand “core facilities” in addition to just building more classrooms.

That means boosting the size of the athletic facilities, the cafeteria, auditorium, etc.

Schools must max out with portables before the district will invest in a permanent expansion, she said, because of a state statute.

“We’re going to spend upward of $50 million at Riverdale High School,” she said. “A brand-new high school is $100 million. It’s not like it’s an inexpensive alternative. It’s not a panacea for all campuses. That high school is in the right location for that. There really isn’t an alternative. We’ve made the decision to spend the money and add the core facility and add the stations.”

When adding new schools, the district tries to do so with future expansion in mind. “We will purposely upsize the core facilities in the beginning,” Ebaugh said. “With land getting more scarce, the district is looking at boosting the capacity at existing schools instead of building new schools from scratch.”

Recent land buys by the Lee County School District  

June 2019: 5 acres at 9400 Block Lane, Estero, $1.5 million  

November 2019: 10 acres at 9350 Block Lane, Estero, $2.5 million 

February 2021: 2.2 acres at 1270 Taylor Lane, Lehigh Acres, $310,000  

April 2021: 2.2 acres at Buckingham Road, Fort Myers, $500,000  

October 2021: 184 acres at 17250 SR 82, Fort Myers, $2.9 million 

Recent land approved to be sold by the Lee County School District 

July 2021: 20 of 40 acres at 12961 Tower Road, Bonita Springs, to Diocese of Venice for $1.5 million 

May 2021: 45 of 125 acres at 9650 Littleton Road, North Fort Myers, to D.R.Horton for $2.1 million 

Recent land sold by the Lee County School District

June 2020: 0.23 acres at 1401 NE 1st Place, Cape Coral, to Salguiero Martinez  for $14,000; 18.96 acres at 13401 Palomino Lane, Fort Myers, to Continental 486 Fund LLC for $7.25 million

Under contract: 1429 NE 15th Ave. to JV of Lee County Housing Authority for proposed teacher/attainable housing 

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