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Prophet, No Profit

Thirteen years ago, Charlie Vavrus proposed building a town on his 4,763-acre cattle ranch in northwest Palm Beach County. He was an atypical developer. An agricultural economist and former farm manager from Illinois, he loved nature, wrote verse, drove old cars and wore sandals to meetings.

He dreamed big. Two years before the neotraditional town movement known as Congress for the New Urbanism was even founded, Vavrus proposed a community like no other, with the automobile relegated to second-class status. Walking paths, bike trails and a jitney would connect nature areas, 18,000 homes and a business district. But regulators decried its location. They said development didn't belong that far west; the site should serve as a wildlife corridor and gateway to agricultural land. A third of it was on the county's list for purchase as environmentally sensitive lands. Vavrus' project died aborning.

Times change. In 2004, Scripps picked the orange grove next door to Vavrus' property for its Florida home. Suddenly Vavrus' ranch was prime for development. The county Business Development Board optioned nearly half of Vavrus' land and in turn cut a contract to have it developed by home builders Lennar and Centex as a science and technology village. Their site is now slated to have 7,500 homes and 2.5 million square feet of commercial space with more development to come on Vavrus' southern portion. Vavrus, 74, will receive a total of $102 million for the land. Vavrus already has donated 100 acres to the state's colleges and universities to use as their research base next to Scripps.

The years since his first proposal haven't been smooth for Vavrus. In an effort to develop his property, he had it annexed by then-development friendly Palm Beach Gardens. Administrations changed, and he wound up fined for cutting timber. He has waged a long and, at the lower court level thus far, losing battle to vindicate his property rights. "Charlie's been through a lot in the last five years," says his attorney, Ernie Cox.

It may not be over. Palm Beach Gardens officials warn that if Scripps finds a new site, they won't let development go forward on Vavrus' ranch.