Murphy Oaks sold to new developers who pledge to work with equestrian center, end lawsuit

Earle Kimel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

VENICE – Developers Frank Cassata and Mike Miller recently completed purchase of a 39.6-acre property in east Venice — north of a major equestrian center — and plan to drop a property rights lawsuit filed by the previous owner against the city of Venice. 

Cassata and Miller said they will also work to develop 16 acres that abut Fox Lea Drive in a manner agreeable to the owners of the Fox Lea Farm equestrian center, which is in unincorporated Sarasota County, southeast of the intersection of Border and North Auburn Roads, just west of Interstate 75. 

“We’ve had a couple meetings with the Fox Lea (Farm) folks, so we’re working with them to come up with a plan that everyone’s happy with,” Miller said.

Developers Frank Cassata and Mike Miller purchased the 39.6-acre parcel outlined in purple on this aerial image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office for $3.2 million from Windham Development. Miller said they plan to end a pending property rights claim against the city of Venice.

In March: Murphy Oaks developer to propose new zoning, even as court case is undecided  

In case you missed it: Fox Lea Farm looking to upgrade with horse cells and footing

Fox Lea Farm owner Kim Farrell said by email: “We are aware of the purchase, and the new owners have reached out to us.

“There are many different ideas being brainstormed, we are optimistic about the possibilities!” she added.

According to Sarasota County property records, the $3.2 million deal with Herb Lawson and Michigan-based Windham Development closed on May 17.

For roughly five years Lawson and Windham attempted to build something on the land – annexed by the city in 2008 – first in 2017 as a 118-home development dubbed The Preserves of Venice.

That application for approval was withdrawn and brought back in 2018 as a 105-home subdivision, Murphy Oaks.

Fox Lea bills itself as a nationally recognized horse show facility that draws competitors from across the country and internationally. Its owners expressed concerns about the construction process and the impact the residents could have on the equestrian center, which is one of the largest generators of sports tourism in Sarasota County.

In 2018 that amounted to an estimated $21.8 million of direct spending in the Venice area and an overall economic impact of $87.3 million.

Fears ranged from the impact of the noise on the psyche of million-dollar show horses to how construction would impact the water table and thus the footing of horses in the show ring.

Fox Lea Farm, located on Auburn Road near Venice, hosts a variety of competitions including Show Jumping Under the Stars, pictured here. Owners of the popular venue are optimistic about working with the developers who recently 39.6 acres north of the equestrian center about a development plan that will not jeopardize their operation.

Fox Lea attorney Jeff Boone of the Boone Law Firm argued for a variety of stipulations designed to protect Fox Lea and show participants.

Residents of neighboring subdivisions, Sawgrass and Waterford, had more traditional concerns of noise and congestion.

When an agreement could not be struck, Windham filed for relief under the Bert Harris Act, a law designed to protect private property rights.

By August 2019, after the first round of court-ordered mediation and another series of meetings before the Venice City Council, the proposed density of Murphy Oaks had been pared down to 85 homes.

A second round of mediation – in which Special Master Scott Steady said the city's ruling was unfair to the developer – failed to suitable result, as the City Council voted against the developer in February 2021.

With that, the property rights case went to circuit court.

Show jumping at Fox Lea Farm in Venice in 2016

From 2021:Venice City Council denies Murphy Oaks development bid – again

While the suit was still active, Windham and attorney Robert Lincoln proposed another option at a November 2021 neighborhood workshop.

That option would have homes on the southernmost five lots zoned at one home per acre – with an option to connect directly to Fox Lea Drive, the main entrance of the equestrian center, which also serves as the boundary between the two parcels.

No one attended that workshop, while about 20 people attended a March 2022 workshop on the remaining 34.6 acres.

A low-key sale

This sign on the southeast corner of the intersection of Border and Auburn roads has been the only official indication that the 39.6-acre property had been sold to Frank Cassata and Mike Miller.

As public as that process had been, the deal between Cassata and Miller and Lawson was fairly low-key.

Dick Longo, a Sawgrass resident who represented the neighborhood during the public hearing process, admitted to learning about the May 17 sale several weeks ago, but had been more or less sworn to secrecy.

Still, once a sign went up declaring that the land would be a future home of Cassata Oaks, he fielded several queries from neighbors.

Longo has been telling those who asked that the sale occurred but little else.

Like Farrell, he anticipates a better experience dealing with Cassata and Miller.

“As I’ve been telling people, there’s no question we have work to do, and in my mind, there’s no question that we can work with these developers and get something that 85% of the people will be happy with.”

Mayor Ron Feinsod called the change in ownership “a step in the right direction for the city.”

“It gets us out of the situation for a potential lawsuit,” he added.

City Manager Ed Lavalle added via email that while the city has had no formal meetings with the developers, officials are looking forward to working with them.

Miller, who partners with Cassata through MPS Development & Construction LLC, said the site will be developed in two phases.

The first would be divided into 70-foot-by-140-foot single-family lots.

“The north part, we’re looking at 41 lots we’ve laid out and a lake,” Miller said.

“Phase 2 would be the southern parcel, so we’re open to work something out with them,” he added, referring to Fox Lea.

Horses in stalls at Fox Lea Farm in Venice.

Miller typically uses the Boone law form for local legal transactions.

As long as there are no disagreements between the two sides, Jeff Boone can continue to act as attorney on behalf of both parties.

Miller said Fox Lea has been open to developing some type of resort housing for the equestrian center’s patrons.

Any use other than single-family residential would require a growth plan change and zoning amendment.

While Miller did not think that the southern parcel would be appropriate for a hotel, he deferred to eventual talks with Fox Lea as to how that portion of the property would be used.

“It’s too early to tell,” Miller said. “We wanted to buy the property, get rid of the lawsuits, sit down and have everybody meet and try to work something out and do what’s good for everybody.”

Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.