Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Two political insiders to survey Florida's big landowners about toll road routes

Two developers who played a role in dismantling growth management laws in Florida are getting paid by the Department of Transportation to consult on what could be the largest state road project in history.

The project is Future Corridors, a series of at least four toll roads that would crisscross the state's rural areas to spur economic growth, create jobs and birth another generation of suburban communities.

Billy Buzzett and Chris Corr were hired in March to conduct up to 20 interviews with major landowners who own large tracts where the roads could go. After interviewing the landowners, the two would come up with a strategic memo based on the discussions. The contract is worth $106,000; potential land deals could be worth much more.

Both Buzzett and Corr have close ties to Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

Buzzett, 53, was Scott's head of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw Florida's growth management until the agency was disbanded in 2011. Before he was tapped by Scott to run the agency he would help eliminate, Buzzett led the planning of more than 100,000 acres and the approval for 30,000 residential units as the director of strategic planning for the St. Joe Co. He's now an attorney for the Panama City law firm Harrison, Rivard, Duncan & Buzzett.

Corr, 48, hired Buzzett at St. Joe's in 2001 and worked with him as the company's executive vice president and chief strategy officer before leaving in 2008. He's now the executive vice president of AECOM, a Fortune 500 global development consulting company. Corr's grandfather developed Apollo Beach, which Corr represented while serving in the state House in 1990-92.

Both Buzzett and Corr supported Scott's campaign for governor and were members of his transition team.

Scott then appointed Corr to the Florida Board of Governors, the board that oversees the state's public universities. In that role, Corr voted to approve the creation of the state's 12th university, Florida Polytechnic in Polk County, which is near the northern end of one of the proposed corridors, the Heartland Parkway. This year, that project was awarded $34.1 million for its design.

Corr has since been appointed by Scott to the board of trustees at the University of Florida.

Corr is getting paid $15,204 to work on Future Corridors. It's unclear if steps have been taken by Corr to avoid conflicts with landowners who may eventually hire AECOM to develop their property around Future Corridors. Corr couldn't be reached, and an AECOM spokesman referred all questions to the state Transportation Department.

Buzzett, who is getting paid $45,724 by the state, works at a law firm that represents developers but said he likely would refuse to represent landowners he and Corr interview.

"The answer would probably be no," Buzzett told the Times. "I wouldn't do anything that would be perceived as unethical. All these landowners, frankly, I'll say, 'no.' I won't work for them. How about that?"

Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said he's not concerned about potential conflicts because the road projects will take too long to build to benefit anyone working now. "If they represent them later, that would be a problem for us," Prasad said. "But (the road projects) are too far off to pose a conflict with any private-sector work."

Buzzett and Prasad say the idea behind Future Corridors isn't to favor developers, but to do things differently than before, when projects were done in a piecemeal fashion. The state needs to better control large tracts of land before it can approve plans that will guide growth in those areas, Buzzett said, and to do that, it needs to work with large landowners sooner.

"It would be premature to do long-range planning before figuring out what the long-range plans are for the landowners," he said.

Hatched by Gov. Jeb Bush, Future Corridors was shelved by Gov. Charlie Crist but has been revived by Scott. The corridors would go through the undeveloped parts of the state. Toll roads, paid for by riders and private companies, would be the major transportation mode.

Tom Pelham, when he led the Department of Community Affairs before Buzzett, raised concerns that the project put roads before land use planning and would steer resources into unpopulated areas and away from areas where growth is more likely.

Prasad and Buzzett disagree, saying that the corridors project is an attempt to anticipate where the growth will happen.

"We won't build it without the population there," Prasad said. "But we want to make sure that once the population is there, it won't cost an arm and a leg to buy the land so we can put a road there."

Over the next few months, Corr and Buzzett will reach out to the state's largest landowners based on a list they compiled. The two will conduct the interviews themselves, and then develop a "strategic memorandum documenting the key findings and conclusions." After getting feedback from the state, Corr and Buzzett will then write a final report that will identify key areas to develop and proposed changes to any existing growth regulations.

Though it doesn't include their former employer, St. Joe's, the list includes other big landowners: Plum Creek Timber; Foley Timber and Land Co.; Rayonier; Bascom Southern; the Mosaic Co.; Deseret Ranches, Florida, which is owned by the Mormon church; Lykes Brothers; Florida Crystals; U.S. Sugar Corp.; the Barron Collier Cos.; Collier Enterprises; and Alico Inc.

Although Buzzett and Prasad say environmental groups and other community activists will be part of the planning process for corridors, none of them have been officially included like the large landowners.

That sends the wrong signal, said Linda Young, director of Clean Water Network of Florida. "You can already predict the outcome," Young said.

"They're going to go to work, spend all this money on studies and engineering, and come up with something the developers want. This will have nothing to do with transportation needs. This will simply encourage development in selected places that will benefit people who are politically connected."

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]

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