Land fight key battle in preservation war

Published Aug. 10, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

In a state-owned forest in the Florida Panhandle, Manley Fuller and Bob Reid of the Florida Wildlife Federation stood chest deep in the yellow blooms of St. John's wort.

Ancient cypress trees and tall pines full of warblers and jays towered over them. Fuller, the federation's president, put his hands on his hips.

"I think this is where the high school goes," he said, frowning.

On the land where the two men stood _ land the state bought to keep it from being developed _ Walton County officials want to create Florida's newest town, with new schools and new homes.

Instead of rough trails through the forest, Walton officials want paved boulevards. Instead of gopher tortoise burrows, they want a courthouse, a library, restaurants, even a movie theater.

For now the blueprints call it New Town. But Fuller calls it "a rip-off of the Florida taxpayers."

County officials want the state to sell them 420 acres of Point Washington forest, scrub and swamp at a bargain price. They can then re-sell parts of it to private developers at a considerable profit.

They say New Town will give "a true center and a sense of identity" to the sprawl of shopping centers and vacation homes in south Walton.

"It would be a showplace and really set the tone for the development of south Walton," County Commissioner Van Ness Butler Jr. said proudly.

For six years, Walton officials have pushed the state to hand over the land for development, even though local residents have said they do not want anything in the forest but trees. Biologists recommended the state keep most of the land, but state officials have acquiesced to the unprecedented sale.

New Town's biggest backer is Gov. Lawton Chiles, who denies being influenced by his friendship with a Walton official who stands to profit. With Chiles' blessing, the Legislature has approved selling the land for less than it is worth.

Now all that's standing in the way are Fuller, Reid and other environmentalists. The Wildlife Federation, the Florida Audubon Society and the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund have sued to block the sale.

The battle is about more than the 420 acres. What is at stake is the program that paid for the land: Preservation 2000. Launched in 1990 to protect environmentally significant property from development, P-2000 will expire soon.

Despite the efforts of state Sen. Jack Latvala, lawmakers have so far failed to renew it. Critics contend the state has bought land it does not need but cannot sell because inflexible environmentalists will fuss. They say the only way to stop the runaway program is to let P-2000 lapse.

Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, believes the environmentalists opposing New Town are handing ammunition to those who would kill P-2000.

"I don't think 400 acres in Walton County is worth sacrificing the whole program," he said.

Chiles contends the Walton sale will set no precedent. But environmentalists are convinced that if they don't stop New Town, developers will snatch up the best P-2000 land around the state.

"If we lose on this," Fuller said, "they'll be back for more."

"Untouched in perpetuity'

The original fight was not even over Point Washington. It was over nearby Topsail Hill, one of the state's most beautiful beaches.

Texas developers once owned both Topsail and Point Washington and said they would create Emerald City, with condos, an amusement park, even an airport. When their plans collapsed, the land was put up for auction by the Resolution Trust Corp.

State officials had long wanted to save Topsail from development. The governor and Cabinet listed its 384 acres as one of their top priorities for purchase. They had also approved buying 18,000 acres of Point Washington. It was a lot lower on the list, but the RTC was eager to sell both as a package.

When Walton officials discovered the state's plans, they sent a lobbyist to a 1992 Cabinet meeting. They were not concerned about Point Washington, County Attorney George Ralph Miller later testified. They were upset Topsail would never be developed.

Their lobbyist told Chiles and the Cabinet that preserving that land would "do no less than cripple their economy."

Despite Walton's efforts, the state did buy Topsail and Point Washington, and for millions less than it had expected to pay for Topsail alone, said George Willson of the Nature Conservancy, who helped make the deal. No one else bid.

The ruined-economy argument did strike a chord with Chiles but only regarding Point Washington.

"It seems like Topsail is very valuable," he said in 1992. "I don't know about this other ... I'm not sure that we shouldn't sell part of this land back off again, let the county have some."

Chiles promised to see what could be done. The state began sending Walton more than $100,000 a year to make up for the loss in property taxes. Walton used the money to push its New Town plan.

But rather than crippling Walton's economy, the state purchase boosted it. People flocked to south Walton, drawn by its wild beauty.

"We invested as we did because we understood so much of the land was to be untouched in perpetuity," said landowner Christine Hightower.

Walton's most famous development is the 80-acre Seaside, showcased as the ideal small town in The Truman Show. The average Seaside home is worth $460,000. All 300 lots have been sold, and its developers are planning restaurants and hotels.

Next to Seaside, St. Joe Paper wants to build a hotel and hundreds of homes and already plans another hotel and a golf course nearby.

So many new subdivisions and condos have popped up that U.S. 98, once a lonely strip of asphalt, is now clogged. Overpumping ruined the beaches' wells, so water is piped in. The demand for electricity has caused brownouts.

Residents protest sale

Yet more than half the homes in south Walton belong to people who live in Atlanta, Memphis or Birmingham. They use them for vacations and rent them out the rest of the year.

Three of Walton's biggest employers are beach resorts, but their maids and maintenance workers cannot afford to live in south Walton. Some are bused in from Alabama, said Butler, the commissioner.

Of the 83 acres of New Town designated for residential development, 10 percent would be for affordable housing. That way the people who work in New Town can live there too, Butler said.

Unlike other Walton developments, New Town is supposed to attract permanent residents _ "retirees and young couples with families," Butler said.

But many current residents do not want new neighbors in the state forest. Hundreds packed a hearing to protest the sale, and 1,000 signed a petition opposing New Town.

"No one thought we needed it," resident Cynthia Alexander said.

County consultant Kassy Keyes contended the true measure of local support came from a panel that studied south Walton's needs and suggested building New Town.

Willson, of the Nature Conservancy, served on that panel. He said the New Town backers were developers who had reneged on promises to include affordable housing and schools in their own projects.

One south Walton landowner who strongly supports New Town is Miller, the county attorney. Environmentalists are quick to point out that Miller is part owner of a 10-acre parcel that would be needed for New Town's high school.

Miller and the governor are longtime friends and former business partners. Both men deny Chiles' position was influenced by Miller.

Miller said he was angry anyone would accuse him of profiting from New Town and said, "I'll donate my interest, if it'll shut them up."

Miller is not the only player in the New Town saga who owns land in south Walton. Jim Murley, secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, has shepherded the project along for years. He owns property in Grayton Beach with Jim MacFarland, one of the county's consultants on New Town. MacFarland said he was not hired to lobby Murley.

"You don't have to lobby me," Murley said, "because I think we're doing what the Legislature, the Cabinet and the governor want us to."

The promise

At one point, the state tried to persuade Walton to take some land hedged by a few small homes instead of the disputed 420 acres.

Walton said no.

"They wanted a place where there was not anything existing," said Dennis Hardin of the state Forestry Division. "A place to start fresh and design a city: the New Town."

But the New Town site is not a blank slate. Biologists found "very significant natural resources" there and recommended saving two-thirds of it. State officials rejected the recommendation.

State officials concluded that fighting to save any of the site would be a losing battle because they were "very aware of the politics," said Tracy Peters, land manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The one thing state officials have insisted on is that Walton pay full value for any state forest. But the county cannot build New Town if it has to pay full price, said Keyes, the county's consultant.

Commissioners have demanded the state charge them what it paid in 1992: less than $250 an acre in an area where recent sales have hit $11,000 an acre. So state Sen. Charles Clary, R-Destin, pushed a bill through the Legislature commanding the state to sell its land for what it paid. Chiles endorsed the bill.

This has happened before. In 1995 Walton school officials convinced Education Commissioner Frank Brogan that the state should sell them 30 acres of Point Washington for an elementary school.

The Cabinet approved the sale at the 1992 price, but it still was not a great bargain. The land was so swampy it cost an extra $100,000 to drain it.

Yet Brogan since has been inundated with requests from other school boards for P-2000 land.

Regardless of what happens with New Town, P-2000 already has been damaged, says Willson. Landowners are reluctant to sell because they don't trust the state's promise to keep their property undeveloped.

"When you make a promise to a landowner, that ought to mean something," he said. "It means less now than it used to."