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Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse

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Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse

Sep 21, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Craig Pittman
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Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
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Hurricane Idalia damage on the Taylor County coast, via Lynette Senter

Last month, when Hurricane Idalia clobbered the sparsely settled coast of Taylor County in Florida’s Big Bend region, it sent my memory spinning back nearly 20 years to the first time I visited that area.

I was there to report on what was happening to hundreds of acres of swamp and salt marsh in an area that was aptly called “Boggy Bay.” This undeveloped acreage lay in the middle of the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, the state’s largest such preserve and one of the largest stretches of uninterrupted sea grass in North America.

On that warm May day in 2006, the only sounds I heard were the wind riffling through the Spartina and needle rush, the cry of a passing osprey, and the scuttling of thousands of fiddler crabs as they scurried across the mud flats.

But the bulldozers weren’t far off.

Boggy Bay had been targeted for a massive development called the Magnolia Bay Marina and Resort. There would be a marina, of course, and also thousands of condos, a hotel, a helicopter landing pad, a public aquarium, a marine science laboratory, and 280,000 square feet of commercial space.

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
Dr. J. Crayton Pruitt Sr., via Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home

“I think it’s going to be a neat thing for Taylor County,” the property owner, a wealthy 74-year-old heart surgeon from St. Petersburg named J. Crayon Pruitt Sr., told me at the time.

He wasn’t joking. He was convinced this would be just the thing to spark a Taylor County development boom the likes of which no one had ever seen before.

To make it work, though, Pruitt needed state permission to dredge a seven-foot-deep channel two miles long and 100 feet wide through the aquatic preserve’s seagrass. That would require destroying 105 acres of coastal wetlands and 36 acres of seagrass in the preserve.

When I saw that part of Pruitt’s development plan, my eyes “sproi-oi-oinnged!” out like I was a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon. I wasn’t the only one surprised and unsettled by it, either. Lots of other folks, both in and outside of Taylor County, didn’t want this disruption to happen, but Pruitt was determined.

“We have to have that channel,” the doctor told me when I interviewed him in his St. Petersburg office.

I’m not a big fan of those TV shows that play with “what if?” scenarios: What if Rachel on “Friends” had married her fiancé instead of running away and hooking up with Ross? What if instead of Captain America it was Agent Carter who took the super-soldier formula? What if Capt. Kirk turned evil and Mr. Spock sprouted a Van Dyke?

But it’s instructive to play “what if?” with the notion that Pruitt’s project was just 20 years too early. These days, hardly anything would stand in the way of a very bad idea like this one.

Florida’s rules for development have been bent to favor the builders’ every whim. They are no longer set up to protect the environment, steer growth away from hazardous areas or spare rural communities from unwanted intrusion by outside forces. Flood zones? Poisoned waterways? Environmental destruction? Not a problem!

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
Shaw Stiller via Linkedin

If Dr. Pruitt were to propose the same thing now, “it would be very difficult to fight,” said Shaw Stiller, a Public Service Commission senior counsel who, back in the mid-2000s, was involved in the battle over Pruitt’s plans. “Anybody who chose to contest it would be looking at some major legal fees, too.”

Fortunately, at the time when Dr. Pruitt was proposing turning Boggy Bay into Magnolia Bay, Florida still had a growth management system that made some sense.

Otherwise, Stiller said, we’d probably have seen a whoooole lot more casualties from Idalia.

Like postage stamps

Taylor County is so lightly settled, the U.S. Air Force once considered turning it into a bombing range. Fewer than 20 people per square mile lived there.

There was a time, though, in the early 1900s when it attracted gobs of wealthy tourists.

The Richie Rich visitors flocked to its nationally known hotel and health spa to soak their joints in its sulfur springs, touted by quacks as having healing properties. They luxuriated in the warm water despite the rotten-egg smell. The resort even sold bottles of its spurious cure-all so the guests could take a bit of the stinky springs home.

Those days were long gone by the time Dr. Pruitt showed up.

Pruitt had made his fortune not from peddling a bogus medicinal bath, but by inventing a pair of innovative medical devices. One is a shunt that allows blood to flow to the brain while arteries are being cleaned. The other is a catheter that flushes out blood clots and arteries in the lower extremities.

He was generous as well. He donated millions to the University of Florida, which resulted in the creation of the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering. And he bought lots of rural land around the state.

In 1996, Pruitt told me, a timber buyer called him to say he had some coastal land in Taylor County that was just too pretty to cut. Pruitt said he drove up the next day and bought more than 3,000 acres.

Ten years later, he was ready to build on it. I guess he figured what was too pretty to cut wasn’t too pretty to pave over. He was fine with developing the heck out of the pretty property.

What was never clear to me was whether Pruitt had asked any questions about how flood-prone it was.

Seventy houses had once lined the waterfront there. Then, in 1993, the No-Name Storm hit that coast with a 12-foot surge. Fifty-seven houses were destroyed and 13 people killed.

So, when Pruitt’s plans for a massive development in that low-lying spot landed at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “I was kind of scratching my head,” Mike Sole, then DEP’s secretary, told me this week.

Sole ended up writing a letter that said the project would not be in the public interest, putting in jeopardy the federal and state permits needed to destroy the wetlands. These days, the state hands those wetland permits out as easily as the post office hands out stamps.

So long to the scallops

Lots of Taylor County residents opposed Pruitt’s plans. They liked the place the way it was, rural and quiet. They weren’t keen on the bold changes he had in mind, and they collected petition signatures that said so.

Lots of environmental groups opposed it too — 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club, to name a few. The main thing they didn’t like about it was that channel through the aquatic preserve.

Not only would it make a mockery of the word “preserve.” It would lay waste to Florida’s last sizeable population of bay scallops.

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
Bay scallops, via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Taylor County is one of a handful of places along the Gulf Coast where you can harvest your own scallops, which have been called “one of Florida’s tastiest seafood delicacies”.

From June to September, seafood lovers from across the South swarm to the Taylor County boat ramps to board a boat, don a snorkel and mask, pull out a mesh bag, and dive in to collect their quota.

Cars line up for more than a mile from the public ramps. Launching a boat can require hours of waiting.

The ever-inventive Dr. Pruitt tried to spin his project so it sounded like it would be a boon to the scallopers, not a harbinger of doom.

Building a marina with 374 wet slips, dry storage for 499 more boats, and a public ramp that could handle up to 300 vessels a day would make access to the places where the scallops were harvested far more convenient, he said.

And he contended the seven-foot-deep channel would actually benefit the seagrass. He promised to transplant all the plants that were ripped out of the channel to other spots in the preserve — a move that seagrass experts said would be difficult if not impossible to carry out.

I interviewed a state marine biologist back then who told me that the channel would disrupt the scallops’ habitat and funnel polluted stormwater into the bay.

“It’s sort of ironic that they’ve proposed a development that would seriously threaten the scallop population,” he told me, “but they’re using access to the scallops as justification for it.”

No ‘due diligence’

To help him build this poorly planned project and shepherd it through the permitting process, Dr. Pruitt chose a Treasure Island developer with some experience. One of Mr. Treasure Island’s prior projects that he touted as an example of his handiwork was an Oldsmar subdivision called the Estuary at Mobbly Bay.

Florida has been described as a sunny place for shady people. Why that’s not our official state slogan, I don’t know. Anyway, Mr. Treasure Island turned out to be a good example of our tendency toward bad examples.

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
A scientist monitors seagrasses in Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, via University of Florida

When I checked into his background, I found out a couple of things that Dr. Pruitt said he didn’t know. One was that his Oldsmar development wound up mired in lawsuits. The developer’s business partners blamed Mr. Treasure Island for the problems and pushed him out.

The other was that in 1993, Mr. Treasure Island had pleaded no contest to two felonies involving cocaine trafficking. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation but completed his sentence early.

“I have on occasion misjudged people,” Pruitt said when I told him. “I guess I should have done some due diligence on him.”

But Pruitt told me that he believed Mr. Treasure Island had changed, so he stuck with the guy a while longer. By then, though, he’d already made some missteps.

The Suwannee River Water Management District had hit Pruitt’s project with a violation notice because work crews began clearing trees without a permit. Meanwhile, Pruitt said, he was told that 800 acres on his permit applications were below the mean high-water line — meaning the land belonged to the state, not to him.

Pruitt wondered if the state would count that as a “donation” to make up for all the damage he planned to do. Back then the answer was no. These days, the answer would be an emphatic “Yes SIR!” He’d probably even get a thank-you note from state regulators.

No more Mr. Treasure Island

Taylor County officials were eager to help Pruitt’s plans come to fruition.

Their county’s economy depended primarily the timber industry and Perry’s polluting paper mill. There were few alternatives once the Steinhatchee Seven bust put the kibosh on the lucrative pot-smuggling trade.

So, the idea of a massive development that would boost the county’s property tax base seemed attractive. In the local newspaper, Taylor’s economic development director praised it as “a well-planned, environmentally sensitive, and beautifully envisioned project.”

In other words, everything everyone with eyes could see that it was not.

The pro-Pruitt county officials were worried about running afoul of the state agency that oversaw growth management, the Department of Community Affairs.

The state’s 1985 law creating the department mandated that local governments draw up comprehensive plans for where and how development would occur and limited the frequency with which they could change those plans.

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
The late Tom Pelham, via Florida State Archives

Developers reeeeeeally hated the department and its steely-eyed secretary, a farm-raised Florida native named Tom Pelham.

To accommodate Pruitt, Taylor County proposed making a series of small changes to their growth plan in hopes of avoiding any review by Pelham and his department. It didn’t work. Pelham wound up involved anyway.

He and his staff warned Taylor County officials that what they were trying to do wouldn’t pass muster. One document from Pelham’s agency said that “the potential loss of property and endangerment of life, in conjunction with the impacts to protected waters, indicate that the adopted use of the properties is not suitable.”

Facing rejections from the DEP, the water management district, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Community Affairs, Pruitt agreed to make changes.

He agreed to drop the marina plan and kill his destructive channel. He also dropped Mr. Treasure Island, replacing him with someone with no criminal record. And he changed the name of his development to “the Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary.”

“Dr. Pruitt has decided to … focus on creating an eco-friendly golf course community,” his attorney said.

But his “eco-friendly” plans still called for obliterating 58 acres of wetlands next to the preserve, and that remained unacceptable to Pelham’s staff.

At that point the water district staff seemed to be waffling, so Pelham sent a letter to the district’s executive director telling him flat-out that “the district may not issue the permit.” If Pruitt sued, Pelham wrote, that would be fine because “the department … is fully prepared” to defend itself in court.

Such a move was remarkably rare, Stiller said. But it worked. Pruitt didn’t sue. Instead, he withdrew his permit application.

However, the saga of Boggy Bay still wasn’t quite over.

No forward motion

By 2010, Pruitt had at last revamped his project into something with far less environmental impact. That meant it was now something that the Department of Community Affairs could live with.

“This is an example of how the state review process went in practice,” the department’s former local planning boss, Charles Gauthier, told me this week. “Very few proposals were stopped dead. Instead, they were channeled through a public process and revised to resolve objections.”

By then, though, Dr. Pruitt had run out of time. He had a heart attack and died at age 79 before he built anything on his Taylor County property.

“There was never any forward motion on that project,” Danny Griner, Taylor County’s top building and planning official, told me this week. “After the doctor passed away, his family wasn’t interested in pursuing it any further.”

Pruitt’s death occurred the same year that the Department of Community Affairs was killed off by Gov. Rick “I Love the Smell of Bulldozers in the Morning” Scott and our pro-sprawl Legislature. Pelham had already resigned by then, surrendering to the inevitable.

“It’s very discouraging to public servants, who are given a mission and responsibility to enforce laws enacted by others, to be constantly bashed for doing their job,” he said at the time.

I talked this week to a woman named Lynette Senter who still lives in the area where Dr. Pruitt had planned to build his marina/condo/hotel monstrosity. She lost her roof during Idalia, but otherwise she did all right, she said.

It helps that the few houses that stand there are nearly all built 21 feet above the ground, she said. And most of their occupants aren’t full-time residents. That meant there weren’t too many people who had to evacuate.

If Pruitt’s project had been built, Stiller said, evacuating all those condo residents and hotel guests would have been a nightmare. And of course, some people would have insisted on staying, regardless of the risk, he said.

Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse
The wreckage of a car teetered on a buckled roadway following Hurricane Ian on Sept. 30, 2022, in Matlacha. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I picture it looking like overcrowded Lee County, where boats at anchor were tossed around willy-nilly by Hurricane Ian last year and the storm surge exceeded 13 feet. More than 70 people died. So much development had occurred on the beaches there that the necessary time to evacuate was 96 hours, instead of the 16 hours required by law.

Now some folks in Lee County are trying to build back in the same places. In some cases they’re trying to make the beach development even more intense than it was before. It’s as if they’d learned nothing.

The folks in Taylor County got word this week that the paper mill in Perry is closing, throwing hundreds of folks out of work. I fear some modern-day Pruitt will waltz in and wave around a bunch of blueprints for a new coastal development that will dwarf the doctor’s.

He or she will present themselves as the savior of Taylor County’s economy. Some money-minded folks will fall all over themselves saying yes to rampant environmental destruction, because they’re too desperate to think straight about the consequences.

And then, a few years from now, another big storm will hit, laying waste to all that new development. In the aftermath, the survivors will wonder with deep regret: What if?