Billy Buzzett, Scott's choice to lead growth management, has long family history in Florida

Here's one story about William "Billy" Buzzett, the onetime development company executive Gov. Rick Scott just appointed to lead the state's embattled growth management department:

While driving through Apalachicola with a St. Joe Co. co-worker named George Willson, Buzzett stopped the car on the highest hill in town, next to an ancient cemetery.

"He showed me there were Buzzetts there — five generations of them," Willson said. " 'They lived here through hard times and good times,' he said. And then he said, 'I care about where my kids and grandkids will live.' "

Here's another story about Buzzett: To get approval for a controversial $330 million airport for Panama City built on land donated by St. Joe, he toured the region promising the company would set aside 41,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land. It's the main accomplishment Scott cited to explain why he picked Buzzett to lead the state Department of Community Affairs.

Now the airport is open, but its builder was cited repeatedly for pollution violations and an investigation found millions of dollars were spent on it improperly. As for the 41,000 acres that were supposed to be preserved, "that land has yet to be donated to the public," complained Linda Young of the Clean Water Network.

"It's very frustrating," agreed John Robert Middlemas, a longtime Panama City environmental activist who worked closely with Buzzett on the airport and land-preservation projects.

Buzzett (pronounced buz-ZET) is a 52-year-old contradiction magnet:

He professes a strong love of Florida's natural areas, yet he helped a big corporation pave over thousands of acres. He's a longtime Republican who has donated to Democrats, including $500 for an Aubudon of Florida official who ran for agriculture commissioner last year. He's a diehard opponent of offshore oil drilling who will now work for the state's most prominent drilling proponent.

But when he talks, there are no signs of those contradictions. He's a smooth operator, say both friends and enemies, totally unflappable.

"He could sell snow to the Eskimos," joked Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation, who counts Buzzett as an ally on offshore drilling.

When he worked for St. Joe, Buzzett employed his skill and charm to soften the company's reputation among Panhandle residents who regarded it as a big bully, helping it "get over that '800-pound gorilla' phase," said Kathryn Ziewitz, co-author of the book Green Empire: The St. Joe Company and the Remaking of Florida's Panhandle.

"That's a hard image to change, but I did my best to make one-on-one contact with people and personalize a very large corporation," Buzzett said.

Now he's taking on what may be the toughest job in the state. He expressed "the highest regard" for his predecessor, Tom Pelham, whose enforcement of the state's laws on growth management so angered some legislators that they tried to abolish the department. Buzzett called him "a lawyer's lawyer and a great Floridian."

And he said he hopes people who think he's the fox sent to guard the henhouse will wait to judge him until he has been in the job a while. However, the job may not exist very long.

A Scott transition team committee has proposed merging the Department of Community Affairs with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Transportation. Among the members of that committee was Buzzett, who calls the proposal "a broad idea without a lot of details." He's not sure it's the right move, but thinks it's worth talking about.

Although Buzzett hails from a long line of Floridian forebears, he was actually born near Fort Benning, Ga. His father was a West Point graduate whose Army service kept the family on the move. But every summer, he said, the family would return to their un-air-conditioned beach cottage in the Panhandle, where a windmill turned the pump for their drinking water.

"There was always a strong rip tide there at Indian Pass," he said, "and I remember standing in the water there and being pulled sideways along the coast, and using that windmill as my landmark so I'd always know where I had to get back to."

Although Buzzett first earned a degree in engineering, his real interest was law. He got more than a law degree at Florida State. That's where he met his wife, Kelly. They have two children, both in college — one at FSU, one at the University of Florida — and live in a $300,000 house two blocks from the shore in Santa Rosa Beach.

Buzzett worked for then-Gov. Bob Martinez, a legislative committee, even the Constitutional Revision Commission. In 2001, he was hired by the St. Joe Co. A paper company since the 1930s, St. Joe in the 1990s became the state's most ambitious developer, with plans to turn a million acres of beaches and pine forests into homes, stores, schools, hotels and offices. To make it all work, though, St. Joe needed taxpayers to pay for a new airport on St. Joe property north of Panama City that, at build-out, would be bigger than Tampa's.

Buzzett was hired to create and promote a plan for the 78,000 acres around the airport. The plan called for preserving 41,000 acres along West Bay while the rest was designated for development. "I'm hoping that, long after I'm gone, people will look at it and say, 'That's how planning should be done in Florida,'" Buzzett said. "It's not perfect but it's pretty cool."

Not everyone was thrilled with it, but opponents got little chance to say so, said Don Hodges, a retired Delta Air Lines executive who contends the airport is an expensive boondoggle.

However, the airport's traffic projections looked so measly that St. Joe had to agree to subsidize Southwest Air Line's operations for three years. The building contractor repeatedly violated water pollution rules. Last month, a federal report on improper Federal Aviation Administration payments put at the top of the list $7 million for the Panama City airport.

Getting the airport and sector plan approved cost Buzzett his job because he wasn't needed any more, he said. He hasn't worked for St. Joe in more than a year.

Although Buzzett says he looks forward to seeing more of Florida in his new job, he'll still be calling the Panhandle home, returning often to the beaches he loves. The cottage at Indian Pass is still there, he said, but not the windmill he once used as a landmark against drifting away.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

.FAST FACTS

Billy Buzzett

. Age: 52

. Born: Georgia (family has been in Florida since 1840s)

. Education: B.S. in engineering, Tulane University, 1981; law degree from Florida State, 1986

. Experience: Assistant general counsel to Gov. Bob Martinez, 1988-1991; staff attorney, Florida House Judiciary Committee, 1991-1995; judge, Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, 1996-1997; executive director, Constitution Revision Commission, 1997-1998; St. Joe Co. vice president, 2001-2009

. Personal: Married, two children

. Hobbies: Running, fishing, snorkeling

Billy Buzzett, Scott's choice to lead growth management, has long family history in Florida 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 11:26pm]

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