Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

In rural Taylor County, a timber giant grasps the long view — but will development ever come?

PERRY

It's a large, rural Gulf Coast county few Floridians have ever heard of, fewer can find on a map and fewer have (knowingly) visited. Now Taylor County's hoping to change that economic anonymity by planning ahead. Way ahead. The entire county is home to just under 23,000 people — about the same as Tarpon Springs — who love the deep-rooted culture of hunting and fishing. It's also home to a timber company owned by two California billionaires whose 562,000 acres compose the largest contiguous holding of private land in all of Florida and, some say, anywhere east of the Mississippi River.

This is a story of a rare event in Florida. It's about how the owners of a big timber business called Foley Timber and Land Co. and the people of Taylor County got together to create a countywide master plan for future development. Thousands of acres of Foley land are now officially designated for business and industrial development. Thousands more near the county's main city of Perry and south near the fishing village of Steinhatchee are set aside for residential development. And the vast remainder of Foley's land? It will remain as is, endless miles of pines for timber and outdoor recreation — just the way the locals like it.

An entire county preplanning its future growth? Most Florida counties would scoff at the notion as an impossible task. But it was something Taylor County could do because Foley Timber owns nearly 57 percent of the land. The rest is split between government land (15 percent) and other private property (28 percent).

By signing off on its master development plan, Taylor County suddenly finds itself a more organized recruiter for new business, tourism and residents.

"This is our marketing tool," says a proud Jack R. Brown, Taylor County's administrator. "We believe this gives us a leg up by showing people what they will become a part of, rather than looking at their individual projects in isolation."

But if they planned it, will anybody come?

• • •

The key player driving this master plan is Foley Timber's lead investor, California billionaire Howard Leach. At 82, he knows he may not see a lot of the long-term development he expects to come to Taylor County. But he knows right down to the acre where it will happen, eventually, and what's likely to be built there.

Jim Sellen, an Orlando planning consultant with VHB MillerSellen, works with big property owners and assisted Foley Timber in this project. He has a name for rare, forward-looking folks like Leach:

"Cathedral thinker."

Says Sellen, who's watched swaths of Florida turn ugly and congested from bad planning: "This is a guy with a long view."

• • •

Last month, I drove the 168 miles up the gulf coast on U.S. 19 to Perry, Taylor County's chief town, and spent a day touring vast timber lands with Foley's senior vice president of planning. His business card says Angus Broward Taff III. But in Taylor County he's just Bo Taff, 47 and a ninth-generation Floridian.

Taff explained the history of Foley and the decision by Leach and his investor group to work with Taylor County on a master plan that almost everyone could support. That process took years and dozens and dozens of community meetings.

"This is all about getting ready," says Taff, a former state economic development official in Gov. Jeb Bush's administration.

We stopped by the area chamber of commerce, where a group of business and county leaders shared their thoughts on Taylor County's love of rural culture but growing need for economic growth.

Taylor County has recently struggled to afford some of its newer projects, like Doctors Memorial Hospital in Perry. The county is officially designated by the state as a "rural area of economic concern" — not unusual in rural north Florida — that comes with some state funding assistance.

Even if the chamber leaders are not quite sure yet how to leverage it, they realize the master plan is a potential billboard to lure economic activity. Developers — leaders hope — will see how Taylor County has already taken care of much of the red tape that can hold up building projects.

Locals are big on Taylor County not falling prey to the chaotic development so typical of most Florida metro areas.

Consider the local perspective of longtime farmer Auley Rowell. A chamber leader involved in the master plan process, Rowell tells how he had once traveled south — to Citrus County — and didn't want to see the sprawl there creeping north to Taylor County.

No surprise, the county master plan is also a coup for Foley Timber. The company's vast property has gained in value by already being approved for specific types of development. Taff and Leach both stress Foley will not develop its own land but rather sell pieces of its property to developers or consider joint ventures.

Leach sounds patient, confident growth will come.

"Florida is forecasted to become the third most populated state soon," he said in a recent interview. "Florida's gone through a difficult economic period, but I think more people will want to retire in Florida. And all of them will not want to go somewhere where there are millions of people.

"Lots of retired people like access to water, hunting, fishing and golf. All those things are available in our area. We are a place for attractive and scenic development," he says.

"I think we will be a place for more middle and upper middle incomes rather than million-dollar homes."

• • •

Getting to this point in Taylor County did not come easy. The county has had its share of stumbles over the years.

The Fenholloway River near Perry is home to Buckeye Technologies' pulp mill, a major customer of Foley Timber. The mill and river have had a notorious history of pollution, and the river environment is not perfect now. It is far better than it was 15 years ago, even if a final solution to handling pulp mill runoff remains to be seen.

An earlier attempt to develop a sizeable piece of Taylor County's coastal area suffered from a local backlash. (Foley Timber watched and learned from that event.) Originally called Magnolia Bay, the project was backed by St. Petersburg surgeon J. Crayton Pruitt. He died in 2011 and the project, renamed Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary, remains largely on paper.

In 2001 and again in 2004, the state sued Perry businesses (a bar and motel) for racial bias.

And in 2005, Foley Timber flirted briefly with the idea of selling its land to a buyer trying to interest the U.S. Air Force in bringing a missile and bombing range to Taylor County.

• • •

With most of those hurdles behind them, Taylor County and Foley Timber leaders want their master plan to send a bigger message about balance.

Controlled development is possible. Economic growth and jobs are important. Preserving the larger rural feel of the county is critical.

"This land is very productive for timber and limestone," says Leach, who visits Taylor County often from his home in San Francisco. "But I think the future will be different."

Taylor County's motto, if it can be called that, is "Florida's Future. Naturally." Maybe that's the start of a marketing campaign for the long term.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

 
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