Guest Column
Defunct Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse | Column
Now there’s nothing that could stand in the way of a project like one that would have remade Taylor County’s coast.
Rescue workers search for people in need of help where the Steinhatchee River remained out of its banks on Aug 30 after the arrival of Hurricane Idalia in Taylor County in the Big Bend area.
Rescue workers search for people in need of help where the Steinhatchee River remained out of its banks on Aug 30 after the arrival of Hurricane Idalia in Taylor County in the Big Bend area. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1

When Hurricane Idalia clobbered the sparsely settled coast of Taylor County in Florida’s Big Bend region, it sent my memory spinning back nearly 20 years to the first time I visited that area.

WEB ONLY -- don't use for print. Times staffer Craig Pittman sig shot.
WEB ONLY -- don't use for print. Times staffer Craig Pittman sig shot.

I was there to report on what was happening to hundreds of acres of swamp and salt marsh in an area that was aptly called “Boggy Bay.” This undeveloped acreage lay in the middle of the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, the state’s largest such preserve and one of the largest stretches of uninterrupted sea grass in North America.

On that warm May day in 2006, the only sounds I heard were the wind riffling through the Spartina and needle rush, the cry of a passing osprey and the scuttling of thousands of fiddler crabs as they scurried across the mud flats. But the bulldozers weren’t far off.

Boggy Bay had been targeted for a massive development called the Magnolia Bay Marina and Resort. There would be a marina, of course, and also thousands of condos, a hotel, a helicopter landing pad, a public aquarium, a marine science laboratory and 280,000 square feet of commercial space.

“I think it’s going to be a neat thing for Taylor County,” the property owner, a wealthy 74-year-old heart surgeon from St. Petersburg named J. Crayton Pruitt Sr., told me at the time.

He wasn’t joking. He was convinced this would be just the thing to spark a Taylor County development boom the likes of which no one had ever seen before. To make it work, though, Pruitt needed state permission to dredge a 7-foot-deep channel two miles long and 100 feet wide through the aquatic preserve’s seagrass. That would require destroying 105 acres of coastal wetlands and 36 acres of seagrass in the preserve.

Lots of folks, both in and outside of Taylor County, didn’t want this disruption to happen, but Pruitt was determined. “We have to have that channel,” the doctor told me when I interviewed him in his St. Petersburg office.

It’s instructive to play “what if?” with the notion that Pruitt’s project was just 20 years too early. These days, hardly anything would stand in the way of a very bad idea like this one.

Florida’s rules for development have been bent to favor the builders’ every whim. They are no longer set up to protect the environment, steer growth away from hazardous areas or spare rural communities from unwanted intrusion by outside forces. Flood zones? Poisoned waterways? Environmental destruction? Not a problem!

If Pruitt were to propose the same thing now, “it would be very difficult to fight,” said Shaw Stiller, a Public Service Commission senior counsel who, back in the mid-2000s, was involved in the battle over Pruitt’s plans. “Anybody who chose to contest it would be looking at some major legal fees, too.”

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Fortunately, at the time when Pruitt was proposing turning Boggy Bay into Magnolia Bay, Florida still had a growth management system that made some sense.

Otherwise, Stiller said, we’d probably have seen a whole lot more casualties from Hurricane Idalia. Taylor County is so lightly settled, the U.S. Air Force once considered turning it into a bombing range. Fewer than 20 people per square mile lived there.

A plan to build

Pruitt had made his fortune by inventing a pair of innovative medical devices. One is a shunt that allows blood to flow to the brain while arteries are being cleaned. The other is a catheter that flushes out blood clots and arteries in the lower extremities.

He was generous as well. He donated millions to the University of Florida, which resulted in the creation of the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering. And he bought lots of rural land around the state.

In 1996, Pruitt told me a timber buyer called him to say he had some coastal land in Taylor County that was just too pretty to cut. Pruitt said he drove up the next day and bought more than 3,000 acres. Ten years later, he was ready to build on it.

What was never clear to me was whether Pruitt had asked any questions about how flood-prone it was. Seventy houses had once lined the waterfront there. Then, in 1993, the No-Name storm hit that coast with a 12-foot surge. Fifty-seven houses were destroyed and 13 people killed.

So, when Pruitt’s plans for a massive development in that low-lying spot landed at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “I was kind of scratching my head,” Mike Sole, then DEP’s secretary, told me recently.

Sole ended up writing a letter that said the project would not be in the public interest, putting in jeopardy the federal and state permits needed to destroy the wetlands. These days the state hands those wetland permits out as easily as the post office hands out stamps.

So long to the scallops

Lots of Taylor County residents opposed Pruitt’s plans. They liked the place the way it was, rural and quiet. They weren’t keen on the bold changes he had in mind, and they collected petition signatures that said so.

Lots of environmental groups opposed it too — 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, to name a few. The main thing they didn’t like about it was that channel through the aquatic preserve.

Not only would it make a mockery of the word “preserve,” it would lay waste to Florida’s last sizeable population of bay scallops. Taylor County is one of a handful of places along the Gulf Coast where you can harvest your own scallops, which have been called “one of Florida’s tastiest seafood delicacies.”

From June to September, seafood lovers from across the South swarm to the Taylor County boat ramps to board a boat, don a snorkel and mask, pull out a mesh bag, and dive in to collect their quota. Cars line up for more than a mile from the public ramps. Launching a boat can require hours of waiting.

Pruitt tried to spin his project so it sounded like it would be a boon to the scallopers, not a harbinger of doom. Building a marina with 374 wet slips, dry storage for 499 more boats and a public ramp that could handle up to 300 vessels a day would make access to the places where the scallops were harvested far more convenient, he said.

And he contended the 7-foot-deep channel would actually benefit the seagrass. He promised to transplant all the plants that were ripped out of the channel to other spots in the preserve — a move that seagrass experts said would be difficult if not impossible to carry out.

I interviewed a state marine biologist back then who told me that the channel would disrupt the scallops’ habitat and funnel polluted stormwater into the bay. “It’s sort of ironic that they’ve proposed a development that would seriously threaten the scallop population,” he told me, “but they’re using access to the scallops as justification for it.”

Underwater donation

The developer he had hired had already made some missteps. The Suwannee River Water Management District had hit Pruitt’s project with a violation notice because work crews began clearing trees without a permit. Meanwhile, Pruitt said, he was told that 800 acres on his permit applications were below the mean high-water line — meaning the land belonged to the state, not to him.

Pruitt wondered if the state would count that as a “donation” to make up for all the damage he planned to do. Back then the answer was no. These days, he’d probably even get a thank-you note from state regulators.

Taylor County officials were eager to help Pruitt’s plans come to fruition. Their county’s economy depended primarily on the timber industry and Perry’s polluting paper mill. So, the idea of a massive development that would boost the county’s property tax base seemed attractive. In the local newspaper, Taylor’s economic development director praised it as “a well-planned, environmentally sensitive, and beautifully envisioned project.” In other words, everything everyone with eyes could see that it was not.

Growth management

The pro-Pruitt county officials were worried about running afoul of the state agency that oversaw growth management, the Department of Community Affairs. The state’s 1985 law creating the department mandated that local governments draw up comprehensive plans for where and how development would occur and limited the frequency with which they could change those plans.

Developers really hated the department and its steely-eyed secretary, a farm-raised Florida native named Tom Pelham. To accommodate Pruitt, Taylor County proposed making a series of small changes to their growth plan in hopes of avoiding any review by Pelham and his department. It didn’t work. Pelham wound up involved anyway.

He and his staff warned Taylor County officials that what they were trying to do wouldn’t pass muster. Facing rejections from the DEP, the water management district, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Community Affairs, Pruitt agreed to make changes.

He agreed to drop the marina plan and kill his destructive channel. He changed the name of his development to “the Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary.”

“Dr. Pruitt has decided to … focus on creating an eco-friendly golf course community,” his attorney said. But his “eco-friendly” plans still called for obliterating 58 acres of wetlands next to the preserve, and that remained unacceptable to Pelham’s staff.

At that point the water district staff seemed to be waffling, so Pelham sent a letter to the district’s executive director telling him flat-out that “the district may not issue the permit.” If Pruitt sued, Pelham wrote, that would be fine because “the department … is fully prepared” to defend itself in court.

Such a move was remarkably rare, Stiller said. But it worked. Pruitt didn’t sue. Instead, he withdrew his permit application. However, the saga of Boggy Bay still wasn’t quite over.

No forward motion

By 2010, Pruitt had at last revamped his project into something with far less environmental impact. That meant it was now something that the Department of Community Affairs could live with.

“This is an example of how the state review process went in practice,” the department’s former local planning boss, Charles Gauthier, told me. “Very few proposals were stopped dead. Instead, they were channeled through a public process and revised to resolve objections.”

By then, though, Pruitt had run out of time. He had a heart attack and died at age 79 before he built anything on his Taylor County property.

“There was never any forward motion on that project,” Danny Griner, Taylor County’s top building and planning official, told me. “After the doctor passed away, his family wasn’t interested in pursuing it any further.”

Pruitt’s death occurred the same year that the Department of Community Affairs was killed off by Gov. Rick Scott and our pro-sprawl Legislature. Pelham had already resigned by then, surrendering to the inevitable. “It’s very discouraging to public servants, who are given a mission and responsibility to enforce laws enacted by others, to be constantly bashed for doing their job,” he said at the time.

Last month, I talked to a woman named Lynette Senter who still lives in the area where Pruitt had planned to build. She lost her roof during Hurricane Idalia, but otherwise she did all right, she said.

It helps that the few houses that stand there are nearly all built 21 feet above the ground, she said. And most of their occupants aren’t full-time residents. That meant there weren’t too many people who had to evacuate.

If Pruitt’s project had been built, Stiller said, evacuating all those condo residents and hotel guests would have been a nightmare. And of course, some people would have insisted on staying, regardless of the risk, he said.

I picture it looking like overcrowded Lee County, where boats at anchor were tossed around willy-nilly by Hurricane Ian last year and the storm surge exceeded 13 feet. More than 70 people died. So much development had occurred on the beaches there that the necessary time to evacuate was 96 hours, instead of the 16 hours required by law.

Now some folks in Lee County are trying to build back in the same places. In some cases they’re trying to make the beach development even more intense than it was before. It’s as if they’d learned nothing.

The folks in Taylor County got word last month that the paper mill in Perry is closing, throwing hundreds of folks out of work. I fear some modern-day Pruitt will waltz in and wave around a bunch of blueprints for a new coastal development that will dwarf the doctor’s.

He or she will present themselves as the savior of Taylor County’s economy. Some money-minded folks will fall all over themselves saying yes to rampant environmental destruction, because they’re too desperate to think straight about the consequences.

And then, a few years from now, another big storm will hit, laying waste to all that new development. In the aftermath, the survivors will wonder with deep regret: What if?

Craig Pittman is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. This essay originally appeared in the Florida Phoenix.

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