December 2, 2023
Ahead of the curve: Charting Taylor County's future

Photo: Mark Wallheiser

Foley Timber & Land hired Bo Taff, an aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush, to craft a development plan that would work for both locals and the company.

Ahead of the curve: Charting Taylor County's future

A big Landowner knew Taylor County wouldn't stay out of the way of growth forever. It worked with local residents to craft a thoughtful master plan for development. But will the plan survive now that the landowner has decided to sell?

| 8/27/2015

Taylor County hides in the corner of north Florida where the Panhandle meets the peninsula. Carpeted with millions of slash pines, the county’s 1,000-plus square miles stretch from the marshy Gulf of Mexico coast deep into Florida’s interior.

For decades, the county was something of a company town. At one point, nearly 1,000 people in the region worked for Procter & Gamble. Dating back to the 1950s, the company owned more than a million acres of timberland in the area, harvesting the pines to feed its Buckeye Cellulose plant in Perry, which churned out the material used in everything from Pampers diapers to Bounty paper towels.

Locals, meanwhile, availed themselves of P&G’s acreage, raising hogs and cattle and hunting deer, boar and turkey on company property. Auley Rowell, 73, a former forester for the company whose family has lived in north Florida for eight generations, says residents treated the Cincinnati-based firm’s holdings “almost like public land. You’d go anywhere you wanted to.”

In the early 1990s, P&G executives decided to focus the company on its core consumer products businesses and sold off its $1.2-billion pulp division. An investment group and a private equity firm bought several of the mills, including the one in Perry.

P&G sold the land off separately, selling several large tracts to the state, which saw an opportunity to preserve a unique stretch of the Florida coastline where beaches are lush with green vegetation rather than sand.

The remaining land was purchased by an investment group led by a pair of California businessmen: Robert Day, who founded the investment firm Trust Company of the West, and Howard Leach, an entrepreneur and former chairman of Hunter Fan.

The two are longtime allies of the Bush family, having raised money in the past for the campaigns of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and the current presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. President George W. Bush named Leach the U.S. ambassador to France, a post he held from 2001 to 2005.

Leach and Day outbid the likes of Hancock Timber Resource Group, a Manulife Financial subsidiary and the world’s largest timber investment manager. Leach, who recalls a “spirited negotiation with several major competitors,” won’t say how much he and his partners paid.

Day and Leach named their new company Foley Timber & Land, partly as a nod to the historic Taylor County community of Foley that has since all but vanished. Day became chairman, Leach president.

Foley, which has bought and sold several parcels of land since the original acquisition, today owns about 561,000 acres spread across five north Florida counties. At nearly 900 square miles, Foley’s property is believed to be the largest contiguous tract of privately held land east of the Mississippi River. The majority of Foley’s land is in Taylor, where it owns more than half of the county.

In the short run, the company planned to make money off its natural resources, primarily slash pines. The trees’ long, dense fibers and thick cell walls are ideal for producing the cellulose needed for products more advanced than paper. Most of Foley’s harvest goes to the former Buckeye mill, which produces pulp used in everything from toothpaste and sausage casings to flat-screen televisions and high-performance air filters.

Foley’s property also sits atop one of the richest limestone deposits in Florida. Two active mines together produce about 1.5 million tons annually, and a third, inactive site has an annual capacity of more than a million tons.

The land has been bountiful [“Foley Timber & Land Co.” page 92]. Leach says the timber operation alone — which produces more than 90% of the company’s revenue — has long since repaid his group’s initial investment.

While pulp proved profitable, what really attracted Leach and Day was the land’s long-term development potential.

Taylor County, for the moment, is still an economic backwater. The county’s 23,000 residents are mostly rural and poor. Perry, the county seat and only city of note, consists of a short stretch of fast food joints and motels on U.S. 27, 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee and 100 miles northwest of Gainesville.

But with the state projected to add another 6 million people over the next 25 years, Foley’s owners knew their property wouldn’t stay out of the way forever.

“We felt that, as Florida land, it had great potential,” Leach says. “The real estate potential long term is tremendous.”

Foley’s owners learned that developing land here isn’t easy. Local residents protect their rural culture fiercely. And Foley arrived at a time when Florida’s growth-management pendulum had swung away from unbridled growth and toward regulation.

Two early development efforts stumbled, including a deal to sell land to a consortium of utilities — the Jacksonville Electric Authority, the city of Tallahassee and Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, among them — that wanted to build a coal-fired power plant.

Meanwhile, company executives began to worry about the kind of poorly managed, piecemeal development that so often encroaches on rural counties that end up on the leading edge of someone else’s sprawl. Day and Leach had seen such growth firsthand in Southern California and knew how it could sap community resources — and property values.

To maximize the value of its land Foley wanted, more than anything, certainty — a plan that both prepared for growth and locked entitlements into place, rather than leaving development decisions to piecemeal haggling among politicians, NIMBY activists and environmentalists.

To develop a plan, the company did something unusual: Foley asked the community what it wanted.

To lead the effort, Foley tapped its connections to the Bush family and hired Bo Taff, an aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who had just left office. A ninth-generation Floridian with a shaved head, rimless eyeglasses and a soft Southern accent, Taff had spent three years as deputy director of Bush’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development and had been point man on projects including the $500-million deal to bring the Scripps Research Institute to Florida.

Working closely with Taylor County government and business leaders, Taff organized a yearlong, community-wide planning effort for Taylor County that became known as “Vision 2060.”

The local chamber of commerce assembled a 20-person volunteer task force that included representatives from local businesses and civic groups. Smaller task forces focused on the environment, housing and economic development, development patterns and transportation and infrastructure. Taff arranged meetings with the secretaries of the Florida departments of transportation, environmental protection and community affairs, persuading each to make senior staffers available to help with the effort.

The process involved about 40 public meetings, most on Thursday nights at a local middle school. One analysis found that five counties seen as historically similar to Taylor — Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Sumter and Walton — had grown much faster than projections issued by UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Based on that comparison, the task force estimated that Taylor County could grow four times its current population, reaching a total of 95,000 residents — about triple the projection for the county.

Ultimately, the community developed a long-range vision that concentrates the most intense development in urban and industrial areas around Perry, as well as in a handful of smaller “rural settlements” farther south along U.S. 27 and in “coastal villages” along the Gulf, in places such as Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach.

Among other recommendations, the task force suggested that Taylor County plan for a new inland bypass road in order to preserve the existing coastal drive — County Road 361 — as a two-lane, scenic highway. And the task force called for large, rural, agricultural and recreational Florida Growth (read: hunting) land.

Foley’s motivation was clear — it intended to use the community’s vision to map a development plan for its own property — one it expected the community would embrace. The Vision 2060 process helped establish a framework that Foley could point to with state regulators, including the newly identified “need” for 60,000 new housing units by 2060 to accommodate the anticipated population of 95,000.

On May 5, 2008, almost a year to the day after the first Vision 2060 meeting, the Taylor County board of commissioners approved the future land-use guidelines. The Department of Community Affairs, by then at the height of its regulatory power under the Charlie Crist administration, signed off, too.

Once the new vision was enshrined in Taylor County’s comprehensive plan, Foley developed a blueprint for 128,000 of its Taylor County acres. One key for the company: It negotiated with county and state leaders to create a new land-use category. Called “agricultural transfer” land, the classification allows large property owners to transfer the sparse residential development rights they had on agricultural property to other land they owned in areas targeted for more urban growth. As a result, they could amass higher density pockets on some parts of their property, while still being able to use the rest for agriculture.

About two-thirds of the 128,000 acres in Foley’s master plan is in the new “agriculture transfer” designation, with the residential development rights from that acreage transferred into the one-third of the land targeted for mixed-use development.

The mixed-use acreage is divided into 10 urban and three rural planning areas, with about 31,000 acres targeted for mixed-use residential development. The plan calls for nearly 26,000 housing units in all.

The remaining 14,500 acres are divided among three non-residential “regional employment centers” — giant industrial parcels meant to accommodate manufacturers or other large employers. Included in those areas is nearly 10 million square feet of industrial land use, with the potential to add more.

Foley also made sure to set reserve land that could be used for the new coastal bypass road.

When Foley representatives presented their plans to the Taylor County commission, the chamber was so full that some people had to sit on the floor. Commissioners approved the plans unanimously.

Even environmental groups were generally pleased. “We like to see large landowners engaged in long-term planning,” says Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “It was self-interested on Foley’s part because by getting those additional entitlements, it increased the value of some of their land. But Taylor County is such an impoverished place, the county itself would never have been able to do sophisticated land-use planning. Foley provided that.”

Taff says that, to his knowledge, Foley’s is the largest master-planned development ever approved in Florida. Now, he says, “It’s like you’ve plowed the land, tilled the soil and planted the seeds. All it’s waiting for is water and sun.”

Taylor County has begun to see glimmers of economic development. In 2013, Amtec Less-Lethal Systems, which makes products for law enforcement officers, spent $10 million to build a training complex in one of Foley’s regional employment centers. The operation created nearly 50 jobs. Scott Frederick, a former economic developer in Houston hired in 2011 to lead the Taylor County Development Authority, says Amtec was the first significant new employer to relocate to the region in 30 years.

Amtec was able to get its Perry operation up and running within a year of striking a deal with Foley. “I saved about a year’s worth of community meetings and zoning issues,” says Matt Eckel, director of business development for Amtec. “They had land that was classified for industrial use and ready to go. It was very good planning for a rural area.”

In addition, last year Foley agreed to sell 55 acres for about $1.3 million to Bio- Nitrogen, a West Palm Beach company that is trying to build a plant to convert biomass into urea fertilizer. Construction has yet to begin.

Foley is also in talks with the University of Central Florida about establishing a coastal research facility in Taylor County, possibly in the Econfina River area or in Keaton Beach.

Regional leaders still dream of a largescale “catalyst project” such as a big manufacturer or a retirement community along the lines of The Villages that would trigger the demand for more services.

Frederick says businesses he’s talking to are intrigued by both the planning and the availability of water in the region. “If you can tell somebody like a juice company that you have subterranean water that doesn’t even need to be treated, that gets their attention,” he says.

Whatever deals may materialize, Foley’s owners won’t be around to see them. With its entitlements locked into place, the company announced in April that it was putting “substantially all” of its business assets and operations up for sale. Foley hired Bank of America Merrill Lynch as a financial adviser on the sale. Analysts expect the auction to attract potential buyers such as real estate investment trusts and pension funds. Some think the sale price could top $1 billion.

Leach says there has been “considerable interest” in the company so far, though he wouldn’t elaborate. Now 84, he says it is time to cash out. “We’ve owned it for 21 years. I’ve had a lot of birthdays,” he says. “If we were younger, we wouldn’t consider selling.”

He says he is hopeful that whoever buys the property will abide by the vision that Foley and the community created together. They have an incentive to do so: Changes will require more government approvals, injecting uncertainty back into the process.

“I can’t guarantee what a future owner will do,” Leach says. “But we think it’s a very well-thought-out plan in place, which they can use or not use.”

Locals say they hope the next landowner proves as neighborly as Foley.

“There’s some apprehension about what’s going to happen now,” says Rowell, the former P&G forester.

“We hope we get another Ambassador Leach-type to buy it.”

Taylor County Portrait

Population: 22,582

Median Household Income: Just over $36,000, more than 20% below the statewide median

Major Industries: Timber, mining, manufacturing

Work Force: 11.6% of those 25 or older have bachelor’s degrees or higher, less than half the rate of Florida as whole.

Notable Companies: Georgia- Pacific, which operates a 600-employee cellulose plant; Doctors Memorial Hospital, 250 employees; Chemring Ordinance, which makes munitions for the military; Thule, which produces aluminum storage boxes and other equipment for trucks.

Assets: Beneath Taylor County’s timberlands lies the Suwannee Limestone formation, a source of hard rock suitable for building roads. The county also sits on the Upper Floridan portion of the Floridan aquifer. U. S. 27 is a major transportation corridor, and the area is served by a short-line railroad that connects in Georgia to tracks operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Foley Timber & Land Co.

Revenue Sources: Income from limestone mining and leases with about 80 hunting clubs represents between 2% and 4% each of Foley’s revenue. Virtually all of the rest comes from timber grown on the 561,000 acres it owns in Taylor and four other counties in the region.

Production: Using technology and breeding programs, Foley has increased production on its timberlands from a little less than 60 tons per acre to 90 tons per acre, says Travis McCoy, Foley’s senior vice president for woodlands operations. Today, Foley harvests and replants more than 1 million tons of pine trees from about 13,000 acres per year. Its timber production accounts for about 8% of the Florida market, one of three big players in the state alongside Seattle-based Plum Creek and Jacksonville’s Rayonier.

“I think of us as farmers, just with a longer rotation,” McCoy says. “Instead of harvesting a crop a year, we harvest ours more like once every 20 years.”

Balance Sheet: Privately held Foley doesn’t disclose financial results. A competitor, Rayonier’s Southern Timber division, which harvested 5.3 million trees last year from 1.9 million acres across the southeast, posted operating income of $46 million last year on revenue of $142 million.

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