DeSantis again backs developers over what’s good for Florida
I don’t know if you noticed, but Gov. Ron “I Can Finally Stop Pretending I’m Not a Presidential Candidate!” DeSantis had a big week last week.
Not necessarily a good week, mind you. But a big one.
He launched his presidential run with an assist from Elon “Check Out My Big Brain” Musk. But all the technical glitches on Musk’s micro-news site made the hashtag #DeSaster trend on Twitter for days afterward. Even his pals on Fox News made fun of him. The Onion joked that he’d relaunch his campaign from inside a burning Tesla.
Then he went on Fox News for an interview in which he dismissed concerns about climate change as “the politicization of weather.” That led a British paper to treat him as if he were some kind of tin-foil hatted wacko.
Folks, I am here to tell you: Our governor NEVER wears tin foil as a hat. That’s because he doesn’t wear hats — unlike a certain bald-headed senator.
The man who would be Fuhr — errrr, I mean president — ditched a plan for a public event in his hometown of Dunedin, apparently fearing actual Floridians might show up half-naked, waving machetes, and throwing alligators. Instead, he opted to meet privately with campaign donors in Miami, where 200 angry protesters showed up to picket outside.
Not exactly the greatest campaign kickoff ever. Next thing you know, he’ll be doing the Jeb Bush “Please clap” routine.
But what I found interesting were a couple of things DeSantis did last week in the $141,400-year job he currently holds, not the things he did trying to get elected to a better one.
DeSantis has styled himself as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist, highlighting his efforts to push Everglades restoration and combat the python invasion of South Florida.
These two actions he took last week undermine those claims. Both involved him doing big favors for developers. And both involved him yanking the rug out from under average citizens who were trying to protect their portion of paradise.
As Peter Parker says in the movie “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse”: “Don’t watch the mouth. Watch the hands.”
‘Frat houses for families’
The first thing occurred during a Florida Cabinet meeting on May 23.
Cabinet meetings used to be lengthy affairs featuring hundreds of participants and spirited debates on the issues. I vividly recall one held in 1996 to discuss using a controversial new fuel for Florida power plants. It lasted more than four hours.
We don’t do that anymore. When everyone’s in lockstep, you can run through the whole agenda in 90 minutes or less.
The last item on the agenda last week was a case out of Martin County involving, on one side, rich folks such as Tom Brady and Michael Strahan, and, on the other, longtime local environmental activists such as the late Maggy Hurchalla.
At stake: the county’s comprehensive plan for future growth, first drawn up in 1982. The plan includes an urban development boundary beyond which sprawl is forbidden to intrude. The county has held that line for years.
But now the owners of a defunct orange grove have cut a deal to partner with the Discovery Land Co. Discovery has built 27 hoity-toity golf course developments for wealthy people around North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. This would be its first in Florida.
The head of Discovery is Mike Meldman, tagged by the Wall Street Journal as “real estate’s party boy.” He’s described his company’s homes as “frat houses for families.” I am assuming that means frequent toga parties as in “Animal House,” but with fancier sheets.
The project would be called Atlantic Fields. It would turn the orange grove into 317 homes and an 18-hole golf course, all on 1,530 acres east of Interstate 95.
Meldman had some of his customers, including Brady and Strahan, send form letters to the commissioners urging them to approve the project. Apparently, he believes the power of celebrity can overwhelm all resistance.
Fans of the county’s comp plan were not amused. Open the door to Discovery, they said, and other developers would crowd in behind them, gobbling up any open space.
“This is the beginning of the end of the Martin County Comprehensive Growth Management Plan,” Hurchalla, a former commissioner and the sister of the late Attorney General Janet Reno, told her friends and followers before she died last year. “It breaks the urban service boundary. It builds a suburban golf course community outside the boundary.”
To get past those objections, the developers called for creating a new comp plan designation called “Rural Lifestyle.” They said it would preserve a small-town feel while allowing more intense development outside, but directly next to, the urban boundary. Instead of being limited to one unit per 20 acres, the project could build one unit per 5 acres, and there would be some commercial buildings, too.
After a seven-hour public hearing last September, the commissioners approved the change for Atlantic Fields by a vote of 3-2. By then, Hurchalla had died, so a friend, retired lawyer Patricia Melzer of Palm City, filed a legal challenge to the decision with the Division of Administrative Hearings.
In March, after hearing expert testimony and legal arguments, a judge from that division ruled she was right. Just slapping the name “rural lifestyle” on a golf-course subdivision didn’t make it appropriate to build outside the urban boundary, the judge said.
What particularly grabbed the judge’s attention was the designation of a “community store” for Atlantic Fields. That’s commercial development, she said, and thus not compatible with agriculture.
The developer and the county appealed, asking the governor and Cabinet to overturn the judge’s ruling.
That was sort of like asking the drivers at the Daytona 500 if they’d like to turn left.
I watched a video of last week’s Cabinet meeting. The part about Atlantic Fields didn’t take long — a mere 18 minutes. The contrast between the speed of this hearing and the seven-hour one held by the county is hard to miss.
An attorney for Martin County got up and complained to the Cabinet for three minutes about the judge’s ruling. As she spoke, I had a mental image of a cloud billowing forth, filling the room like a morning fog.
Then Attorney General Ashley Moody asked why commercial uses aren’t allowed in a farming area. After all, she said, farmers are trying to make a profit too, so they could also be considered a commercial use.
It’s an argument that would be laughed out of any land-planning class. But the attorney for Martin County hastened to agree with her.
Then an attorney for the orange-grove owner got up to complain for four minutes. I have peered into mud puddles that were clearer than his argument.
Then it was Melzer’s turn. She talked for six minutes, in part to make her argument and in part to rebut what the others said.
“The inconsistency is clear,” she told DeSantis and the Cabinet at one point. “The comprehensive plan policies say no commercial uses outside the urban areas.”
Then the county’s attorney gave a quick rebuttal, and that was it.
With no discussion, questions, or debate whatsoever, DeSantis immediately moved to overturn the judge’s decision, ruling in favor of the developer and the county. The other Cabinet members leaped to vote yes faster than Kevin Costner leaped to save Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard.”
The governor then left the room like a man who just remembered he’d left the bathtub tap running. Perhaps he was late for his daily practice recitation of all the three-letter things he opposes. You wouldn’t want to get CRT, ESG, and DEI mixed up.
My point is that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
“I don’t think the Cabinet members have a clue” about what’s going to happen in Martin County, Melzer told me.
Remember how proud the folks in Martin County were of their longstanding comp plan? “This cuts it off at the knees,” Melzer said.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, either.
Here we go again
One of my favorite “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketches is the one that begins with a TV host played by Michael Palin announcing, “Tonight on ‘It’s the Mind,’ we examine the phenomenon of déjà vu — that strange feeling we sometimes get that we’ve lived through something before.”
Then he finds himself saying the line again and again and starts to freak out.
I got that strange feeling while watching the Cabinet meeting. It had happened before.
Five months ago, the governor and Cabinet heard another appeal from Martin County. This one involved a proposal to build a Costco in Stuart on the site of a former tree farm. Stuart’s commissioners approved the project.
As with the Martin County case, a concerned citizen filed a challenge in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. The same judge who heard the Martin County case heard the one from Stuart. As with the most recent case, she ruled for the concerned citizen.
And when the case went to DeSantis & Co., they did the exact same thing as in the Martin County case: In a matter of minutes, they threw out the judge’s decision and ruled for the developer. The citizen has now taken the case to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
The attorney who represented the citizen in the Stuart Costco case happened to be present at last week’s Cabinet meeting too. Richard Grosso, a former law school professor, has been involved in land-use planning cases for 35 years.
He told me this marked the fifth straight time he’d seen DeSantis lead the Cabinet in tossing out a judge’s decision so they could give a developer whatever he wanted.
“It’s really a broken process,” he told me.
Grosso noted the irony of holding a judicial hearing with an impartial judge and a string of expert witnesses, only to see a political body toss out all that hard work.
“The Cabinet is not really equipped to make these kinds of decisions,” Grosso said. “It completely undermines a citizen’s ability to challenge things.”
Of course, he pointed out, given the other thing the governor did last week, the Martin County case might mark the last such case to ever wind up in front of the Cabinet.
Where the money is
During the session that just ended, our fine legislators passed quite a few measures to make life easier for developers and those who aid that industry.
I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that quite a few of those legislators make a comfortable living as builders, realtors, development consultants, or attorneys.
By far the worst bill of all was SB 540, sponsored by Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-Pave Over Everything. You may recall he was recently accused by his business partners of embezzling from their garbage-hauling business to finance his political career, court records show.
His bill said that anyone who challenges a local government for changing its comprehensive plan at the behest of a developer, and then loses that challenge, can be held liable for the legal bills of the winner.
Often these fights wind up drawing in as a party to the suit the developer and his or her expensive legal counsel. That happened in both the Stuart Costco case and the Martin County Atlantic Fields case.
The law now allows the loser to be stuck only with court costs. The price tag for paying for the other side’s high-priced legal eagles too could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, posing the risk of bankruptcy or worse.
The bill was meant to discourage all the little citizens’ groups fighting to keep sprawl from swamping their community. Who would be willing to mount such a crusade if you knew that trying to defend your home could lead to you losing your home?
Nearly every environmental group in the state called on DeSantis to veto the bill, sending in letters signed by thousands of people. One of the groups seeking a veto was Friends of the Everglades, because they could see the potential for rampant development destroying any gains made by the billion-dollar Everglades restoration.
Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, reminded me that, just a few months ago, DeSantis signed an executive order that called for “the Department of Economic Opportunity to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning to encourage successful and sustainable growth while protecting natural resources.”
“To sign [SB 540] into law would directly undercut his executive order,” she told me. “Florida is the fastest growing state in the country. The only way to protect the Everglades is to control that growth.”
But two days after he voted for the developer in the Cabinet meeting, DeSantis quietly signed SB 540 into law, once again signaling he loves developers more than anyone else.
I can’t say this was a shock. He’s been doing the bidding of his developer buddies ever since he took office. At their behest, he’s arranged to have the state take over issuing federal wetlands permits, backed controversial toll roads despite their obvious environmental damage, and signed every pro-development bill passed by their legislative lackeys.
He kowtows to the developers because, as notorious bank robber Willie Sutton once said of banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sure enough, they have repeatedly paid him back with hefty campaign contributions.
But don’t worry! I have a plan to turn things around.
We should all dispatch warnings to the governor that those builders and developers have been secretly practicing those things he says he opposes — CRT, ESG and DEI.
Discovery, for instance, is now touting its keen interest in renewable energy, minimizing the use of plastics, recycling wastewater, and composting. If that’s not manifesting the “woke mind virus,” I don’t know what is. I bet they even looked at a Disney movie once!
In the meantime, though, whenever “DeSaster” starts bragging about how much of a friend to the environment he’s been, remember to watch his hands, not his mouth.