Subscribe to Florida Trend


May 27, 2018


Shell Shock

Palm Beach County's environmental politics have made the proposed site of the Scripps Research Institute's Florida home a battleground in Florida's war over growth.

Mike Vogel | 12/1/2004
Perhaps no economic development project in the state's history promised as much -- and has received as much special handling -- as the creation of a Florida campus of the renowned Scripps Research Institute.

Sixteen months ago, Gov. Jeb Bush personally launched an initiative to lure Scripps here to open a major research center. He code-named his effort "Operation Air Conditioning" because he believes its impact will be as important to Florida as that invention. With help from elected officials, university leaders, economic development groups and big incentive money, Bush quietly sold California-based Scripps on Florida.

After some clandestine scouting trips around the state, Scripps settled on Palm Beach County for its new home. And in October 2003 Bush announced a "seminal moment" in state history: Scripps, a biomed industry leader doing Nobel-quality research, would create 6,500 high-wage jobs here over 15 years, adding $3.2 billion to Florida's gross domestic product. Another 44,000 jobs would be spawned as companies opened or relocated around Scripps. Palm Beach County promised $200 million to make Scripps happen, and a special session of the Legislature that same month delivered the state's incentive goods (eventually $369 million) to thrust the project forward. The state, Scripps and Palm Beach inked contracts, and construction was to start in only 15 months, in January 2005.

All involved wanted a fast start, and the county pledged to use expedited authority granted under state law to hurry. Bush, legislators, business people and the media heralded Scripps' coming as an unprecedented opportunity, as momentous as the building of the Kennedy Space Center and as important to Florida as Disney World -- with maybe a cure for Alzheimer's thrown in.

What none of them factored into their growth equation was that a loose coalition of uncompromising environmental groups and Palm Beach's fractious politics would pour sand all over the project's carefully greased rails. Unexpectedly, Scripps has found itself square in the middle of the state's long-running argument over growth, with Scripps' irresistible promise smashing head-on into the immovable objections of growth-limiting orthodoxy. Scripps could spend the next few years in the courtroom rather than building laboratories, with its scale and impact on Florida hanging in the balance.

Squaring off
The battlefield is the site Scripps selected for its Florida home. Mecca Farms, a 1,900-acre orange grove and sand mine, seems appropriately symbolic in the context of Florida's efforts to transform its traditional economy. The Mecca site in north Palm Beach is large enough to accommodate not only the research center but also -- especially when combined with an adjacent property -- the spinoffs and biotech relocations expected to cluster around Scripps.

This Scripps-Plus cluster was no mere afterthought. Scripps-Plus is the rationale for the state's huge investment and its promising jobs forecast. "It's always been about more than Scripps," says Larry Pelton, president of Palm Beach's economic development group, the Business Development Board. "Mecca's the best site to complete the cluster."

Environmentally, Mecca is insignificant, with "few, if any" wetlands or natural areas, acknowledges one environmentalist's report. But its neighbors include rural land, low-density residential, a mitigation tract and the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Karen Marcus, a Palm Beach County commissioner, who met early on with Scripps' officials, says she "warned the general counsel of Scripps" of the potential for friction. "It's what surrounds the Mecca site that's the problem," she says.

Chair of the board of commissioners until last month and elected representative for the district that includes Mecca, Marcus is a key player in the Scripps drama. Some in the business community label the 20-year Republican commissioner and former board member of 1000 Friends of Florida a "no-growth" advocate. While environmental groups hold her in some regard, Marcus dismisses the anti-growth complaint outright: "I've voted for plenty of development," she says.

Scripps' momentum carried Marcus' warning and all else before it -- initially. Communities from Indiantown to Indian River County pondered how to capture some of the expected Scripps-driven demand for housing and commercial space. Near Mecca, large landowners made plans to turn their rural acreage into subdivisions. Newspaper articles dwelt on the economic and educational possibilities and the plans for a Scripps-anchored village with plenty of open space and walkable paths. A proposed hospital would some day work with a world-class med school.

Environmental factor
Scripps' choice of Palm Beach County over other areas of the state seemed justified. Scripps saw in the county a wealthy donor base, cachet, available land and proximity to the coast. Scripps landed scientists with stellar resumes, and donations began flowing in.

But Palm Beach County has another attribute: Harmony comes hard here. The county is carved up among urban and rural, rich and poor, north and south, with often exclusive social and cultural circles built on ethnicity, religion and northern hometowns.

And, as Scripps would learn, the county has what Boca Raton lawyer and one-time state legislator Barry Silver calls "strongly entrenched" environmental groups. Silver should know. He founded the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition.

Soon, the glow behind Scripps began to fade. The county expected to recoup its investment by selling surplus land at the Mecca site to developers for 2,000 homes and 8.5 million square feet of commercial space and by taxing the new development. The county's strategy came into question when newspapers reported the county's contribution to the Scripps deal had climbed to $667 million from the original $200 million; the problem was the media accounts were based on a mistaken reading of pro forma statements, says Bevin Beaudet, the county's point man for Scripps. The reports were akin to replacing the purchase price of an apartment with the cost of all the interest payments over the entire life of a 30-year mortgage without counting the rental income, Beaudet explains.

Beaudet says the real estimated cost to the county to buy, develop the land and build Scripps' building -- after revenue from rents and land sales -- is about $100 million over 30 years, which doesn't include tax revenue on the new development, job creation and other economic activity. But the reported $667 million figure damaged the project''s image, and Commissioner Addie Greene told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the deal was beginning to look like a "debacle."

A June public hearing on Scripps showed how the tide had turned. For two hours, speakers complained about costs, traffic and the environment. Commissioners got e-mails and letters referring to Scripps as a scam. Meanwhile, the Business Development Board and the county commissioners squabbled over sidelight issues. Infighting soared among commissioners over past alliances and slights. Members accused each other of conflicts of interest and ethical violations and demanded investigations. Commissioner Tony Masilotti wrote a memo referring to fellow Commissioner Mary McCarty as "Bloody Mary" and talked of her flying around the county building on her "favorite broom."

Scripps' progress stalled. The commissioners eventually stopped fighting, but far less easy to elide were the complaints of Silver, his coalition and environmental groups 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida and the Environmental and Land Use Law Center. They complain Mecca is in the watershed of the federally designated "wild and scenic" Loxahatchee River. They say Scripps will introduce sprawl to an area that should remain largely rural.

"You talk to the scientists at Scripps," Silver says. "They'll tell you cancer is uncontrolled growth. Uncontrolled growth is what Scripps is now inflicting on Palm Beach County with the help of the county commissioners. The cancer will spread. We will continue to fight until Scripps ends up somewhere else."

Silver says environmentalists aren't uniform in their views of Scripps. 1000 Friends of Florida, for example, supports locating Scripps in Palm Beach County, but not at Mecca. Others object to Scripps because it uses animals for research, Silver says. Silver's own view: "Personally, I don't like bringing thousands of people into Palm Beach County. It's already too crowded."

Ever present at governmental meetings, the once-quiet environmentalists became increasingly vocal. If Scripps/Mecca goes through, the county might forfeit the ability to turn away other developers, says Janet Bowman, 1000 Friends of Florida legal director. Indeed, some opponents go so far as to claim that Scripps must be sticking to Mecca because of promises of contributions from developers anxious to open the area to construction. "It's all about the economics of development in western Palm Beach County," Bowman says. "It's like opening up the frontier. Scripps is really the catalyst."

Silver and other environmentalists filed their first legal challenge in August over a water permit issued by the South Florida Water Management District. The stated goal: Force Scripps to another site. As opposition grew, Marcus in fact had led the commissioners to look for alternative sites.

Scripps, warning it risked losing recruits if delayed, pressed the commissioners for the necessary go-ahead land-use vote on Mecca. Commissioners delayed. Pelton and like-minded people fretted that if the county didn't give Scripps the authority to proceed, Scripps could claim the county had violated its contract -- and could move the project outside the county or even the state. Pelton received a courtesy call from an economic developer in another state that intended to make a pitch to Scripps. Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the area stood ready to host Scripps if the Palm Beach deal collapsed.

It appeared possible. At one commission meeting in October, opponents spent hours arguing against Scripps/Mecca. Protesters came to the meeting wearing little more than cardboard boxes, saying Scripps was "stripping us bare." Finally, on Oct. 13, commissioners agreed to change the county's land-use plan and rezone to clear the way for Scripps on the Mecca site. Silver and others vow to sue if Scripps tries to break ground.

What now?
Where that leaves the project isn't clear: Scripps could be doomed to years of delay. Or, as environmentalists believe, the county, Scripps and the state are engaging in contractually driven positioning in the course of a negotiation that will end with Scripps in Palm Beach County but at a different site.

Scripps spokesman Keith McKeown says, "We are fully focused on Palm Beach and Mecca Farms." Bush, publicly at least, has generally kept away from the Mecca debate, but it's hard to envision him content to abandon his legacy to the vagaries of "process." He didn't respond to questions for this article.

The two likeliest alternative sites don't bode well for Scripps' and economic developers' original goals. Both are less than half the size of Mecca, jeopardizing the Scripps-Plus cluster used to justify the state's investment.

However Scripps' site location shakes out, the fight underscores that Florida hasn't settled its growth-management debate.

Bowman, of 1000 Friends of Florida, sees in Mecca evidence of a discouraging trend toward the state forgetting its urban infill goals. Others see growth management failing for different reasons. Says Randall Holcombe, a Florida State University economics professor, "when it comes to siting new businesses or expanding old ones, our land-use policies often stand in the way and push businesses to locate in other states."

Another perspective: When the Mecca dust settles, the state needs to consider how poorly its financing choices -- on road construction compared to mass transit development, for example -- align with its goals, says Sam Poole, former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District and now an attorney in Fort Lauderdale. The cases of Mecca and the 1992 decision to place Florida Gulf Coast University in a remote part of Lee County show that in spite of urban infill goals, "when the state acts as a developer, the state makes the same choices the private developer makes," Poole says. (Poole worked on behalf of sugar company Florida Crystals' offer to lure Scripps to an alternative site in the Everglades farming belt around Lake Okeechobee. It died from environmentalist opposition.)

Poole says it may be too late to find an alternative to Mecca. "I don't know where this all ends up," he says. "I hope it ends up with Scripps in Palm Beach County."

The Scripps affair also has had some effect on the county's and state's images. Pelton believes competing locales will use it to raise doubts about the county in the minds of companies choosing where to relocate.

Fred Leonhardt, an Orlando lawyer, Enterprise Florida board member and former chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, worries about Florida's ability to attract companies if it can't deliver for Scripps. "It saddens me greatly that this important project for our economy has gotten to this point," says Leonhardt. "It's a significant turning point in the relationship between our economic development efforts and the environmental community." He adds, entreatingly, "this is one they should give on."

This month, the county is scheduled to close on the Mecca land purchase. But "we won't be able to break ground in January because we'll be in court," Marcus says. "At some point, it's going to be their (Scripps') call as to whether they want to wait." In the courtroom, Marcus says, "there's nobody expediting anything."

Interestingly, if Scripps doesn't develop on Mecca, the county will have to sell the site to recover the $60.5 million it spent to buy the land. "You could win the battle and lose the war," Bowman worries. "They could turn around and sell it for a high-density golf course community that would be worse."

Silver is ready. He says he will "challenge that as well."

Tags: North Central

Digital Access

Add digital to your current subscription, purchase a single digital issue, or start a new subscription to Florida Trend.

An overview of the features and articles in this month's issue of Florida Trend.


Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick

2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook
2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook

Dr. Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, and the rest of his team NOAA, are predicting an 75 percent chance that the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season will either be near-normal or above normal.

Earlier Videos | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

Do you think Florida's election systems are secure?

  • No
  • I have doubts
  • Yes

See Results

Ballot Box