2007: Jane Healy, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel
Award for Editorial Writing
Thursday, March 1, 2007
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing

Jane Healy

Article list

Series: Florida's SHAME

April 2, 2006

Losing paradise

We feel duped. How about you?

SPRING 1974: Florida declares that the Green Swamp in Lake and Polk counties won't be paved over for the next get-rich-quick scheme. Hallelujah! In putting this swamp in the same category as the Everglades, legislators must have recognized even then that this was exactly what was needed to preserve it. Central Florida's Everglades, if you will. Not only does it intersect five major river systems, this 560,000-acre swamp between Orlando and Tampa teems with rare plants and animals. The scrub jay, the wood stork, the black bear. Even the elusive Florida panther roams its forests. Name an endangered species in Florida, and you can bet you'll find it here. Quite a stand for a state that usually bends over backward to accommodate every fast-buck artist who shows up at the state line. Must be real precious land.

SUMMER 2005: Wait a minute. What's this we hear about the Lake County city of Groveland fighting to allow a megadevelopment in this very swamp? The developer even has the nerve to call itself Banyan, the name of a popular Florida tree. The developers will plop down as many as 532 homes in a part of the Swamp that was slated for 57 homes. Do the math: It means that developers stand to make almost 10 times more than if the 361 acres remained rural. Didn't 72 percent of Groveland just vote to ban so many homes in the swamp? Why, yes, but Groveland commissioners will have none of that. They actually went to court to get around their own voters and gain the right to help kill the Green Swamp. So much for the Legislature's 1974 vision.

And you wonder why we feel duped. Bet it's nothing compared to how 72 percent of the Groveland voters feel. And this commission is supposed to be looking out for them? Come again? Our only comforting thought is that this is an isolated incident for Central Florida.

Or is it?

NOVEMBER 2004: Seminole County voters approve a referendum that says the County Commission has the right to protect areas such as the Black Hammock, an oasis for endangered critters and plants just on the edge of Winter Springs and Oviedo. The voters know full well that Seminole has precious little land left to protect. And they don't want politicians to destroy the very things that drew them to Florida in the first place. Well, that's a nice thought, but not good enough for Winter Springs. It apparently reads the same playbook as Groveland and sets the stage for a scheme to put at least nine times as many homes in that area as now allowed. By this time, we're getting pretty good at developers' math. Winter Springs, too, drags a case against the Seminole vote into court. A copycat killing? Sure sounds like it. Winter Springs now is saying it won't turn Black Hammock into a subdivision. Well, pardon us if we're not celebrating just yet. The city still is bulldozing ahead with its court case to strip the County Commission of its right to preserve the Black Hammock.

Surely, this isn't going on in Orange County, is it? Hasn't Orange learned time and again that caving into big-time landowners and developers betrays the voters' trust?

Apparently not.

JAN. 10, 2006: Surprising as it is, Orange County actually comes up with a decent plan for developing so-called Innovation Way in east Orange County. The idea is to create an area where high-tech jobs can exist alongside homes. Work, live and play all in the same area. Terrific. But what are all those Gucci loafers doing in the commission chambers the day Innovation Way is coming up for an initial vote? Please, tell us it isn't true that this snarl of lobbyists is going to use Innovation Way to promote the next big scheme. Some innovation. Can't anything just be left alone? Well, we might want that, and so might the voters. But four county commissioners -- Bill Segal, Homer Hartage, Mildred Fernandez and Bob Sindler -- disagreed. They turned to the lobbyists and, in effect, said, "Let's see if we can maul another 10,000 acres of wilderness." Who cares that this land has nothing to do with Innovation Way except that it's next door? It's a great excuse for a huge, new subdivision. Isn't that the only thing that really matters in Central Florida?

So why would these commissioners do this? It's just a first step, they said, nothing to get all huffy about. They just wanted to see what state regulators think. Well, yeah, we do feel a bit huffy. Why do they want to hear what the state has to say about a project their own county planners didn't even support? Could they be fishing for a few kind words? Words that could give them an excuse to approve this project when it comes up for another vote in May? Surely not, we think. Hasn't Orange gotten better about these things? But then we realize that we can't remember any project that has gotten this far only to be rejected. By the way, Commissioner Segal says he has had a change of heart, and he's not for the project after all. Pardon us if we're not cheering this either. His vote allowed this scheme to take off.

Something else: This land sits next to the Econlockhatchee River, the one that 15 years ago the Orange commission vowed to protect.

So has nothing changed? Will Florida remain forever the butt of the jokes, the place where elected officials treat developers as royalty rather than people to regulate? Unfortunately, in too many cases, yes. In the next four days, we will explore why Florida remains such a mess of traffic jams and crowded schools. We will show you a state law passed 20 years ago that was supposed to fix things, only to be doomed in its first few years. We also will tell you more about the new villains -- the cities such as Groveland and Winter Springs, whose panting for growth is upending any responsible thoughts that voters harbored. We will tell you about the Kissimmee River. Taxpayers are spending $578 million to restore it to its roots, only to have Osceola County poised to OK megadevelopment after megadevelopment that could help destroy the waterway and endanger the eagles that nest there.

But all is not for naught. There still is time to do things right, even in the fiascoes detailed above. Only, though, if our elected officials grow some backbone.

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Series: Florida's SHAME

April 3, 2006

Failure to launch

Did you enjoy your commute this morning? Neither did we.

Seems to get worse every day whether you're coming or going. But don't you wonder why this is? Those of you here in 1985 probably remember hearing legislators tout a new law that said, once and for all, that subdivisions won't be approved if the roads aren't in place to handle them.

As everyone can see, the traffic got worse, not better. And if you think it's bad now, grab your steering wheel. The seven-county area with 3.5 million people now will grow to 4.6 million in 2020, 7 million by 2050. This isn't a matter of growth or no growth. There's no way to stop it, nor should we. But there are ways to manage it, ways that our elected officials have pretty much ignored.

Oh, the lawmakers pass tough laws. It's just that it takes only a Florida minute for them to fall apart when elected officials start understanding it means they actually would have to start turning down developments -- or forcing developer pals to come up with more money. To heck with that.

So from the get-go, they found ways around it. Take the "landmark" law requiring governments to have a responsible plan for growth. Turned out, it was just that -- a plan -- one that usually never saw the light of the commission chambers. For its part, Orange County waited only six months before it turned 3,000 acres that was supposed to stay rural into an industrial park. The joke was on the rest of us. When other governments saw that Orange could get away with this, they fell right in line. After all, there's big money at stake here, for the developer anyway. Let a developer put four homes on an acre rather than one on 5 acres and the cash register starts clanging. Let the rest of us stew on I-4.

But, wait a minute. Weren't state officials supposed to stop all this? Aren't they the ones who had the power to say no? Well, yes. Problem is that they instead said, "Fine, go right ahead." So Florida wasn't serious after all.

Don't think it ended there. Once developers saw an opening, they pounced. Now that they had decimated the 1985 law, they turned to a new prey. Their victim was a law that gave regional planners a legal avenue to challenge a megadevelopment. Developers hated that law. It had them shaking in their Guccis because regional planners didn't accept campaign contributions. So what happened next?

SPRING 1993: The Legislature decides that regional planners can't appeal these developments anymore -- that they can only make "recommendations." Wonder why you never hear about regional planners anymore? That's why.

But at least we had Gov. Lawton Chiles, the one who stood up for the people against the special interests, right? Now that the regional planners had been put in their place, surely he would push the state to crack down. Wrong again. Read on.

By this time, St. Lucie County in South Florida had gotten the word loud and clear that it could put the developers ahead of everyone else. Must have heard about Orange County. So it said "Be my guest" to a developer who wanted to plop his citylike development right in the middle of a rural area. This was too much for even state planners, who had been more than happy to rubber-stamp every fast-buck scheme that came out of Orange. But this time, they said: Enough. End of story, right? Not quite. The story in Florida never ends with an unhappy developer. So his next stop was back to the politicians: Gov. Chiles and the Cabinet. Surely, Mr. Chiles would back his own agency, wouldn't he? Actually, no. On a 4-3 vote, Mr. Chiles signaled the end of any hope that the state might be there for its residents.

Now fast-forward to Gov. Jeb Bush. Mr. Bush is a smart man. He understands that Florida can't continue like this, right? Well, Mr. Bush apparently hadn't been in Florida long enough to realize how it works here. Only a few years ago, the governor believed that things would get better if governments simply calculated the real cost of sprawl. Being shocked -- shocked! -- at how much it cost, the politicians then would turn down the developments. Well, give him credit for understanding the costly effects of sprawl, how inefficient it is to pay for new sewer lines and new roads in the countryside when they're needed somewhere else. He understood that while this allows the developers to get exactly what they want -- cheap land -- it sticks the rest of us with jammed roads and schools everywhere else. But was the governor so naive as to believe that passing a law making governments come up with this information would really stop anything?

Maybe Mr. Bush hadn't been paying enough attention to what was going on in the Legislature. Otherwise he would have realized that every few years, the lawmakers trot out a new "growth-management bill." It supposedly cracks down "once and for all." Want to know the best indicator that a growth law is worthless? A unanimous vote of approval. That tells you right off the bat that it's not going to do anything other than give every lobbyist a new Lexus.

But, as we said, Mr. Bush is a smart man. It took him a while, but now he recognizes nothing will get better here until governments actually turn down developments if the roads and schools aren't available for the growth. So he got behind a new law, one that really will work -- if it's enforced. That's certainly a leap of faith in Florida.

Indeed, legislators watered down even this one in the last legislative session as soon as the development industry and its legislative pals got their gloves on it. Nevertheless, it could make things better -- but only if our elected officials have the will to make it work. Finally, finally can't they just say no if the roads and schools aren't there to accommodate it? What actually is so hard about that? Stay tuned. The legislative session is only half over.

Article list

Series: Florida's SHAME

April 4, 2006

Dollars FOR DUMMIES For aspiring developers: Five easy steps to get rick quick

Ready to help

Lesson 1 -- Find an attractive project like Orange County's Innovation Way to latch on to. Remember the new buzz words: living, working and playing, all in the same area. That's what Innovation Way would do. But don't exactly do Innovation Way. That's much too expensive. Instead, find some rural land next door.

That's right. It's that easy. In Florida, you can always find enough commissioners to fall for this. (Don't mention that this would mean the county would have to provide roads, schools and water for thousands of new homes that it hadn't even planned on.) But don't think words alone will convince these savvy commissioners. So:

Lesson 2 -- Find the most expensive lobbyists around. Can't afford them? You must have forgotten lesson 1: You never lose if you have the politicians right along with you. Always remember to buy the cheapest land possible. And here's the beauty of that: You never have to worry about its initial cost because the commissioners rezone the land before a mortgage payment ever comes due. It's always worth 10 times as much by then.

Here's how those developers did it in Orange County: First, they called their development "Camino Reale." Good start. Makes it sound like something you can't say no to. Then they hired the very best: former Speaker of the Florida House John Thrasher. Next they added another important component: someone who just recently was a big shot in the state agency that has the final say. Here in Florida, that would be Oscar Anderson.

OK, you now have on board the powerful former politician and the former agency honcho -- who's next? Down Orange County way, it's almost always Hal Kantor. Not a name everyone has heard of, but he sure is popular around the commission chambers. He gets in on about every big deal that rolls through the pasture.

Now for the execution:

Lesson 3 -- Tell them to visit the newest county commissioners first. (These three already know this, but it will make you sound authoritative.) In Orange's case, that would be Commissioners Bill Segal and Mildred Fernandez. They both are pretty new and don't yet know that they're seen as suckers. Here's the trick: Tell them you just want the project "transmitted" to the state. The big word sounds good, and they have no idea what it means. But we do. We asked about the record books in the past 20 years and found that whenever an Orange County project is "transmitted" to the state, it gets approved.

Oh, yes, there was one project rejected, something on University Boulevard 10 or 15 years ago, but everyone has a tough time remembering any details. Must have had the wrong lobbyists.

But you can't be too sure here. The newbies might think they have to ask some questions. So:

Lesson 4 -- Have your lobbyist tell the commissioners that a more popular commissioner -- or mayor -- is going to vote for the project. Again we're back to Orange. Can't help it. It's a great teaching lesson. Bill Segal fell for it. When the lobbyists told him -- or at least strongly implied -- that Mayor Rich Crotty was going to vote for Camino Reale, he figured it was good enough for him, too. (Wonder what Crotty thought when he heard that one? Turns out Crotty voted against having Camino Reale latch on to Innovation Way.)

Start counting those dollars, ladies and gentlemen. Now is the time to go for the close -- the final two votes:

Lesson 5 -- Set your sights on the commissioner who never seems to know what he's voting on. You can get those guys to do the wildest things. In Orange's case, that would be Commissioner Bob Sindler. All it took was one visit from the lobbyists to get his vote. And now he's telling people he never really voted for it. Remember that for the next time. Get commissioners to deny they ever did it.

OK, now for the kill: the fourth vote, the vote to riches. That would be Homer Hartage. And what brought him around? Don't know. He's not talking. But it doesn't matter. His vote's still good.

Congratulations! You have figured out Central Florida.

One last piece of advice: Get out of town! That's right, get out of town before people figure out what you did, in this case, to the Econlockhatchee River. Forgot to tell you, but this easy money means that thousands of rare critters will have to move somewhere else. We know, there might not be anywhere else for those scrub jays, wood storks and eagles. But, heck, you've made your pile of money already, right?

A note of caution: Sometimes a commissioner may change his or her mind. In this case, it's Bill Segal, who now realizes the lobbyists might have been having their fun with him. He's saying he won't go along with the gig when Camino Reale comes up for another vote May 23.

Final lesson: Don't give up. That next vote is still seven weeks away. Messrs. Kantor, Thrasher and Anderson are ready and available. Their price may go up, but it will be worth your while. If nothing else, just remember one lesson: All you need is four people -- doesn't matter which ones -- to turn precious land into the next subdivision.

Article list

Series: Florida's SHAME

April 5, 2006

The new villains

Like happy endings? Then you might not want to read this.

NOV. 2, 2004: What a great day for Seminole County residents. Hurrah. By their votes, they were actually going to protect precious land against the sound of the bulldozer. Not many other counties in Central Florida could claim that, now, could they? After all, who in Seminole hadn't made the trek to the Black Hammock?

It's hard to believe that just a few short minutes from their subdivisions with homes cheek-to-jowl, they could sit at a fish camp on the shores of Lake Jesup. Residents could sip a drink and watch gators slip through the water while a snowy egret, maybe even an eagle, soared above. Nearby they might spot an endangered wood stork making its way through the dark swamp. And they knew they could take a look at something called the cuplet fern, a plant so rare that this is the only place in the continental U.S. where it can be found in the wild. Now this is more like it. This is why they stay in Florida.

They also knew that the Black Hammock, with its dripping Spanish moss hanging from the water oaks that fill the swamp, was only the beginning. It was the gateway to rural Seminole County. Lake Harney, the Econlockhatchee River, the St. Johns River. They all now would be protected from citylike subdivisions. Finally.

NOV. 16, 2004: No, this can't be happening. The city of Winter Springs, which sits right next door to the Black Hammock, is in court to stop the voters' bid to save the hammock and the rest of rural Seminole County. Please say no. Was their vote just some sort of bad joke cooked up by a prankster? Why else would Winter Springs' lawyers be marching into the courthouse with a piece of paper arguing that the voters had somehow violated the city's rights? The county can't tell the city what to do, it says.

Then we come to our senses. We realize we shouldn't have been surprised. Winter Springs was the reason that Seminole commissioners asked voters whether they wanted to keep the area rural. And can you blame them? Winter Springs was making moves to put sewers -- sewers -- in the hammock even though it wasn't even in the city limits. Anyone who has been in Florida more than 10 minutes knows what sewers mean. They mean subdivisions and plenty of them. All Winter Springs needed to do now was bring the land into the city, a simple feat in Florida. Even worse, Winter Springs wins the first round in court. It may actually win the right to prevent the Seminole commission from protecting the rural area. Pardon us if we're not cheering. But Winter Springs doesn't stop there. It also supports a bill gaining steam in the Legislature that would allow Winter Springs to ignore county voters who want to protect land. The Winter Springs cheerleader for all this is City Manager Ron McLemore, who has backed one scheme after another for the Black Hammock.

Ready for the punch line? The Winter Springs commission now says it doesn't even want to put a subdivision in the hammock. It just wants the right to do so.

So let's take Winter Springs at its word: It's not going to develop Black Hammock or other wilderness in eastern Seminole. Why does it want to give other cities the right to? Why does it want to leave this precious land victim to any developer who can sweet-talk the next new commissioner? We all know how those conversations turn out. And what about the next Oviedo City Commission? That city also sits right next door to Black Hammock.

Well, it can't be that bad, can it? Can a win for Winter Springs really destroy Seminole's way of life? Well, yes it can. Here's the ugly truth: If cities are allowed to fill rural eastern Seminole County with subdivisions, that area alone will have more residents than the entire city of Orlando has now. It would house even more residents than presently live in Osceola County. All told, it could mean 80,000 new houses, 240,000 more people. Wonderful. Houses replace the critters. Now are you happy, Ron McLemore?

But at least in Seminole there is some hope. Maybe Winter Springs will come to its senses and drop its suit. Or maybe it will stop backing the bill in the Legislature.

In Lake County there is one case that has no hope. There, Groveland went to court against its own city voters to pave the way for a subdivision in the Green Swamp. Yes, that's the same swamp the state 30 years ago vowed to protect against just this sort of development. The 560,000-acre swamp is filled with waterways and endangered animals that need plenty of space. Groveland too had a city manager -- Jason Yarborough -- engineering the assault. Thankfully for the Green Swamp, he's no longer there. But his big reason for supporting this Banyan subdivision is that the developer might donate a park. Welcome to the new Florida. Do whatever you want as long as you donate a park or a school. Works every time.

That was last July. So has Groveland gotten its park? Not yet, says the new city manager. They are still working on it.

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Series: Florida's SHAME

Series: Florida's SHAME
April 6, 2006

Eagles for sale?

Want to hear another great thing about living in Central Florida? Right near Kissimmee, at the Osceola and Polk county border, we have the richest concentration of bald-eagle nests in the U.S. Even richer than Alaska. That state has far more bald eagles than we do, but we have more eagle nests close to one another: 329 in both counties.

It's not hard to imagine why so many eagles settled near the Kissimmee Prairie. Bald eagles always want a waterfront view so they can see where their next meal is coming from. In this case, that would be Lake Tohopekaliga and the Kissimmee River. This area is so attractive to the eagles that their numbers have been increasing every year. Last year alone, America's birds built 15 nests for their eaglets in the two counties. No small feat when you consider that the nests are about 5 feet wide, 3 feet deep and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Isn't Central Florida great?

By now you've probably guessed that this isn't going to be a happy tale of a threatened species being able to survive peacefully amid the bulldozers and asphalt. And you're right. It's not. Guess who else covets this waterfront view? Right again. It's the developers, who want to plop five megadevelopments in the very area where many of these eagles nest. All told, these subdivisions will account for almost 100,000 new residents, nearly half the number living in the entire county right now. Politicians such as Osceola Commissioner Atlee Mercer will tell you that there's nothing to worry about, the eagles will do just fine. Wish we could be so confident. Problem is, subdivisions always mean fewer trees. And fewer trees can mean fewer eagle nests. The nests there now can't be touched. And for good reason. Just think how long it took for the U.S. to bring the eagle back from near-extinction. But what about more eagle nests for the future? And what happens in the next hurricane? The last hurricanes destroyed 70 percent of Florida's eagle nests. Because there were still plenty of longleaf pine trees around -- the best for nesting -- 80 percent of those nests came back.

But it's not too late for the eagles. Politicians such as Mr. Mercer could insist that developers preserve enough trees to protect and help increase America's bird. But Osceola isn't doing this. And don't think it's just about these megadevelopments. Even worse will be the smaller subdivisions popping up along the lake's shore as Osceola explodes with growth. And you thought Florida had changed? Wrong again.

If that isn't enough to get you concerned about what's going on in Osceola County, its new subdivisions might destroy the Kissimmee River, which taxpayers are spending $578 million to restore. This is the river that government channeled in the 1960s to control flooding. Didn't do much except ruin a river and a lot of animals and plants. Now we're bringing back the river's curves, along with wildlife. Great idea. But we might as well throw the money into the old ditch if the politicians don't insist that enough of this land be kept free of houses. By keeping a lot of the land open, water can remain there during the wet periods. Otherwise, it will flood somewhere else. And guess what happens then? We're right back to digging channels and polluting the water. Who cares about $578 million?

This isn't about rejecting these developments. They can end up just fine if the Osceola County Commission would just develop some backbone. But here's the scariest part: Two weeks ago Ken Shipley, vice chair of the Osceola commission, stood before a group of business leaders to brag that the county will be a "model" for managing growth. Sounds good until you realize that a week earlier, the state sent back Osceola's plan for growth with a 64-page litany of problems. Basically, the state couldn't figure out how Osceola was going to provide all the roads to support its new residents or even where the homes would be located. Has nothing changed? Except commissioners now know enough to say they are a "model" and hope to get away with it.

Actually, Commissioner Shipley is one of the good guys. He may be delusional about Osceola being a "model," but he says he will push for more protections for the eagles and other critters. He doesn't want the politicians to destroy the very things that make Osceola special.

A personal plea to elected officials in Osceola County: You actually can be a model if you want to. We are pleading with you to learn from the mistakes of the other counties in Central Florida, mistakes that we have detailed in the past five days. Most of your growth is in the future. Don't ruin what you have by putting quick bucks for the developers ahead of all the things that folks appreciate about Central Florida. You can insist that these subdivisions keep enough trees and open land to allow the eagles and the waterways to thrive. You also could launch programs that allow owners to trade land in such sensitive spots for more-intense development somewhere else. Maybe even join with other nearby counties to do so.

Be a model. For generations to come, Central Florida will thank you.

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