September 20, 2014

Editor's Page

Reasoning Animals

Mark R. Howard | 8/1/2006

Two stories from the state's growth management front this summer:

The first involves Babcock Ranch, a 91,000-acre swath of property east of Interstate 75, northeast of Fort Myers in Lee and Charlotte counties. On part of the land, the descendants of E.V. Babcock operate a cattle ranch, along with some logging, mining, sod-farming and an eco-tourism operation. Much of the property, however, is relatively pristine and provides habitat for a number of endangered species.

The family members decided to sell. The winning bidder is a developer from West Palm Beach named Syd Kitson, an amiable man who played professional football as a guard for the Green Bay Packers for a few years in the 1980s. Kitson structured a deal in which he will buy the property and sell 73,000 acres back to the state for $310 million. (Lee County contributes $40 million and gets a piece of the acreage.) Of the 17,800 acres he keeps, Kitson plans to actually build on only about 11,000 in one corner of the property, leaving the rest as undisturbed wetlands or green space.

If you're keeping score, that works out, percentage-wise, to Environment 88, Developer 12 -- not a bad outcome these days in Florida, particularly for such a big piece of land. In addition to acquiring a huge parcel of parkland for the public, the state is using general revenue funds to finance the purchase, so the deal won't hamstring future purchases of other environmentally sensitive land by the state's Florida Forever fund.

Environmental groups including the Audubon Society had a hand in ironing out some of the finer points of the deal, including the water rights, and most ended up applauding a good deal when they saw one. The state is very close to assembling an unbroken corridor of protected land from Charlotte Harbor to Lake Okeechobee.

Then, as Kitson was about to close on the deal, the Sierra Club filed a petition to block Kitson's development, holding up the closing on the property and snatching uncertainty from the jaws of victory. The Sierra Club's justification for the suit masquerades as high-mindedness, but it's doubletalk. The club professes to be concerned that if Kitson's deal falls through, another might not be as favorable -- having just filed a lawsuit that could jeopardize Kitson's deal.

The suit probably won't undo the deal, but it's an example of how self-righteousness masquerading as principles can waste time, money -- and ends up giving less well-intentioned developers plenty of ammunition when they rail against "environmental extremists."

Meanwhile, a proposed development in Taylor County mirrors the Sierra Club's blockheadedness, but it's the developers who missed the big picture.

A St. Petersburg surgeon named J. Crayton Pruitt -- in partnership with a man named Chuck Olson, who the St. Petersburg Times reports pleaded no contest to conspiracy to traffic in cocaine and attempted cocaine trafficking in 1993 -- wants to develop one of the last big chunks of undeveloped land in private hands in the state's Big Bend area. Pruitt made a great deal of money by pioneering a medical device used to prevent strokes, and he's given a good bit of it to good causes, including $10 million to the University of Florida.

He may be a good philanthropist, but as a developer he's got a hammy fist. He has submitted plans for a massive, $700-million marina-resort called Magnolia Bay in Taylor County, just east of Dekle Beach in an area called Boggy Bay. Ultimately, he envisions nearly 400 wet slips, dry storage for 500 boats, high-rise condo buildings, a golf course, a heliport, commercial space, a public aquarium and marine lab, a resort hotel and housing for 7,000 on 3,800 acres nearby. The coast, in this stretch of Florida, is mostly marshland and prone to flooding in any kind of storm. Building there will require constructing some two miles' worth of seawall and revetments -- and will result in the destruction of 105 acres of coastal wetlands.

Abandon, for a moment, any general consideration whether a thing like this is even vaguely appropriate for the place where Pruitt and Olson want to put it. Consider instead that to provide access to the marina from the Gulf, Pruitt's and Olson's plans call for digging a two-mile channel, 100 feet wide and seven feet deep, through the Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve, the state's largest such preserve. The channel would destroy at least 36 acres of seagrass flats in an ecological treasure that supports all manner of sealife -- including a huge bay scallop population -- and which state law says should be maintained "forever for the benefit of future generations."

The official response -- from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee River Water Management District -- seems to amount to furrowed brows and "this-will-be-a-tough-one" officialese. A local Big Bend angler quoted in Florida Sportsman magazine put it best: "This project is heinous," said Joey Landreneau. "For heaven's sake, this is an aquatic preserve."

And he's right. If the state can't stop this one, then any future attempts to manage growth will be laughable.

Maybe the net effect of decades of fighting over how to balance Florida's environment and the profit motive is to have made us numb -- numb to good deals that strike an effective balance and numb to what we should have learned from all those decades of fighting about where and what to build.

This summer, those inclined to cynicism may find plenty to support Twain's assessment: "Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute."

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, Around Florida, Environment

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