by Joel S. Hirschhorn
[Until recently the author was Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association. He now writes and consults and his book "Sprawl Kills - Better Living in Healthy Places" is forthcoming. He can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com.]
Suburban sprawl is the spam of the built environment, it keeps coming, people complain about it, and nobody seems capable of stopping it. Gluttonous land development is ubiquitous. For decades the sprawl industry has used its money and political muscle to keep government subservient to sprawl interests, especially in Florida, whose environmental uniqueness belongs to everyone. Land development is the engine of economic growth in Florida, which has become a developer's dream. That's what happens when a governor has made his fortune in real estate development.
Governor Jeb Bush has not used the state's legal framework to limit sprawl. Say one thing and do the opposite could be the motto for Governor Bush's approach to addressing the ravenous sprawl consuming Florida. As The Washington Post observed in 2002, Florida's governors' "growth management efforts have failed for decades, and Jeb Bush's administration has been especially close to real estate interests." A former attorney for the state, Ross Burnaman, summed it up: "Jeb and his lieutenants are by and large selling the state out."
The sprawl industry has a long history of corrupting government in Florida. The Washington Post reported in 2002 that "Prosecutors showed that Collier County government in the 1990s was basically a developer-run criminal enterprise, with politicians enjoying free golf, envelopes stuffed with cash and even a free wedding reception while rubber-stamping developments and waiving fees." In early 2003 the Orlando Sentinel reported that three commissioners of Lake County, Florida "never met a subdivision they didn't like. They talk 'smart growth.' .Then they vote with developers - the same ones that pour thousands into their campaigns." They had voted to build a sewage treatment plant that would cause an explosion of sprawl by attracting 10,000 new homes in an area where every elementary school was already overcrowded. The Center for Public Integrity revealed that 25 Florida legislators had outside financial interests in real estate and that campaign contributions to state candidates in 1998 from the real estate sector totaled $2.5 million.
Al Hoffman is deemed the most influential Florida developer and has headed an exclusive council of CEOs advising Governor Bush on policy. As to land development, Hoffman has boasted "You can't stop it. There's no power on earth that can stop it." Presumably in his mind that includes voters and government officials. In October 2003 Governor Bush and his Cabinet approved a project for a marina that could handle 100-foot yachts and a 15-story condo with 48 units selling from about $4 million to almost $9 million. Jim Baltzelle, editor of the St. Augustine Record, who attended the meeting, reported "Bush did not mention during the Cabinet meeting that his campaign finance chairman was the developer on the line. Neither did anyone else." Hoffman was also able to get Governor Bush to create in late 2003 the new state Office of Destination Florida so that state funds could be used to attract even more senior citizens to retire in Florida, providing even more business for developers like Hoffman. Hoffman is also active in getting the state to support transport of water from the panhandle to southern Florida to keep the development blitzkrieg moving there.
With the money he funnels to politicians Hoffman has every right to think that nothing can stop runaway sprawl development. He also has been the finance chair for the Republican National Committee and a prodigious fund raiser for the Bush brothers. He is a "Ranger" for President Bush's re-election campaign, because he has bundled at least $200,000 in contributions. Interestingly, in early 2004 out of 165 such Rangers at least 40 percent were connected to the sprawl industry. In November 2003 Hoffman hosted a reception for President Bush at his Fort Myers mansion where some 700 guests paid at least $2,000 a plate; the event raised $2.5 million.
The largest private land owner in Florida is the highly profitable St. Joe Company, with some 850,000 acres, and it has benefited greatly from the Bush brothers. It owns about 3 percent of the sunshine state. At the beginning of the last century it bought land for as little as $2 an acre, and now sells some land for $2 million an acre. Most of its land is in Florida's panhandle which it has renamed Florida's Great Northwest, because a panhandler is someone looking for a handout. And St. Joe is getting handouts from government. Moving roads and building new roads with government money make certain St. Joe parcels of land feasible for development. Hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars will help build infrastructure that St. Joe needs for maximum returns. In November 1999 Governor Bush issued and Executive Order designating eight panhandle counties as "rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern," which opened the floodgates for millions of state dollars for public infrastructure.
And then there is the new Bay County airport it wants in the middle of an isolated forest 20 miles from Panama City. Why? To uncork development on 70,000 acres around the airport, which hardly any objective person thinks is necessary. The existing, relatively new and under-used airport in Panama City would be closed. The Bush brothers have backed the airport project with millions of state and federal dollars already, and 80 percent of the $200 million plus construction cost would come from state and federal funds. St. Joe's Chairman said that the new airport is "essential to unlocking the enormous value of our holdings."
Governor Bush's administration has aided St. Joe's development efforts by shifting growth management powers from the state to local government. In fact, when the governor created a growth management commission he put a St. Joe official on it who argued against laws that would force developers in rural regions like the Panhandle to preserve rural character. The governments in the panhandle have few resources to confront St. Joe's blitzkrieg. In one case, the company wanted 12 acres of state-owned land in Bessant Park in Panama City Beach so it could build a 240-acre complex of restaurants, hotels, theaters and an outlet mall. The city got $2.2 million of state funds which are supposed to be used to provide money for parks and used the money to buy the land from the state and give it to St. Joe.
St. Joe has cleverly sold more than 90,000 acres to the state for $120 million to preserve as green space. In the past five years St. Joe has become the chief recipient of funds from state programs to buy land for conservation. Various reviews have found much of the land overvalued or unsuitable for development anyway. The state set up a special program to allow the company to sell new tracts of land to the state more easily and with less scrutiny than other landowners confront.
When you trace the history of Jeb Bush you discover the beginning of his business success in Florida happened when his father asked a friend to hire him. Armando Codina hired Bush to sell and lease real estate, with a salary in 1981 of $42,408. Then Codina made Bush a partner, giving him 40 percent of the business without any investment of money, and named the company Codina Bush Group. In 1986 Bush's income was over $1 million from the company. In one deal, Bush invested $1,000 in the Museum Tower office development project in downtown Miami. In 1990 he sold his interest for about $346,000. Codina twice welcomed Bush back into the business after Bush quit, first to serve as Florida's Secretary of Commerce and then to run unsuccessfully for governor in 1994. When he left to run for governor he got a payment from the company for nearly $800,000, and the company became the Codina Group. Like Hoffman, Codina is active in Republican politics and communicates regularly with the first President Bush.
Connect the sprawl dots. Over the years Codina and Hoffman have done real estate deals. Codina and Hoffman were Florida electors in the Electoral College that made George W. Bush President. Back in 1997 the St. Joe Company bought one-third of the Codina Group; now they own 50 percent. St. Joe and its officials have also been major contributors to the Republican Party and Bush campaigns. The Chairman of St. Joe, Peter Rummell, is a "Pioneer" for President Bush's re-election campaign, because he has bundled at least $100,000 in contributions. In 2003 Governor Bush's trusted spokeswoman Katie Muniz left to work for St. Joe. St. Joe also hired William Harrison as a lobbyist; he had served as the local chairman of Jeb and George W. Bush's campaigns in the panhandle. And Sam Ard on St. Joe's lobbying team is one of the governor's golfing partners.
Anti-sprawl voices have not proved effective in Florida. Carl Hiaasen has been writing about the sprawling of Florida for many years. In a 1985 Miami Herald column he commented: "This year the Legislature passed a 'growth management' law, supposedly to impose order on the state's tumultuous development. Frankly, the notion of 'orderly growth' is about as tangible as the tooth fairy. Growth that is orderly would break a century-old tradition of lust, greed and wantonness." More recently, St. Petersburg Times writer Bill Maxwell opined in 2003: "The Sunshine State, one of the nation's great treasures, is fast becoming the Asphalt State. What we are doing to our paradise is criminal and, well, stupid." Similarly, Joe Newman of the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2003 "When it comes down to it, no matter how much lip service state and local planners offer against sprawl, they rarely do anything to stop it." Only money explains why Florida politicians have not stopped the sprawl juggernaut.
One way to curb the power and influence of Florida's sprawl lobby is to transfer power from the governments it controls to citizens. There is considerable public discontent with gluttonous land consumption. A survey of Florida citizens by the state in 1999 found that only 8 percent thought the state was very effective in managing growth, 57 percent thought suburban quality of life had declined, and over 75 percent wanted more public involvement in planning and development decisions. Now, these Floridians must act.
Distrust in government caused Florida Hometown Democracy in 2003 to launch a petition drive for a constitutional amendment that would give local voters control over land use changes through referenda, instead of local and state politicians. Lesley Blackner, one of the group's founders, made the case: "We have government by the developer and for the developer. .too many of Florida's elected officials only define the 'public interest' as keeping the development industry happy." If they get the required 500,000 signatures rest assured that the sprawl industry will pour millions of dollars into defeating the amendment in the general election. The group may win, despite opposition from the Florida Home Builders Association and Governor Jeb Bush.
It is crystal clear that long ago developers and corrupt politicians pushed Florida off the 60th floor of sprawl-central. Florida keeps tumbling toward social, fiscal and environmental disaster in bright sunshine for all but the time-blind to see. As in too many other states, laws are passed as window dressing and the sprawl blitzkrieg continues. Perhaps the grassroots Florida Hometown Democracy initiative will wake up Floridians before the sprawl hits the fan and all of Florida's unique natural beauty is lost. If not, most Floridians and visitors will be surrounded by sprawl instead of natural beauty and fighting brutal traffic to get to work, a beach or shopping, while sprawl developers enjoy their waterfront McMansions and yachts in the state they developed to death.
And how do you think Jeb Bush will earn money after he is governor?