Eating the Dead in the Everglades

In June 2002, Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald quoted one of the nation’s GOP power brokers, Al Hoffman:

“”You can’t stop it,” said (Hoffman), the most influential developer in a state crowded with influential developers. At the time he was the top money man for Gov. Jeb Bush and lead an exclusive council of CEOs who advised the governor on policy. He had been co-chair of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee’s finance chair. “There’s no power on earth that can stop it!” Hoffman, cried … “The unstoppable force Hoffman was talking about is the runaway development marching from southwest Florida toward the Everglades. The Naples area was the second-fastest-growing in America in the 1990s. The Fort Myers-Cape Coral area is not far behind. And the gated golf course communities that have come to define this subtropical mecca are spreading east.” (Washington Post, June 25, 2002)

In the summer of 2002, Jeb Bush was on cruise control to a final term as Florida governor. State Democrats were nowhere. Hoffman knew what he was talking about. Bush’s opponent during that campaign was a Tampa based attorney, Bill McBride, whose wife, Alex Sink, is now the Democratic candidate for governor. Life was good in Bushland. Low interest rates triggered by 9/11 and concern for the economy provided fuel and political kindling for a housing boom of historic proportions. Jebco fully mechanized the process of harvesting campaign contributions; its baling wire looped around every water pipe, driller, engineer, farmer and land speculator from Miami to Jacksonville, from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. It was inconceivable, except to a few planners and environmentalists, that exuberance would turn to dust.

“It’s an inevitable tidal wave!” declared Hoffman to the Washington Post. The hubris foreshadowed the detritus littering the Florida landscape in the worst housing bust since the Great Depression. In August 2008, Hoffman’s former company, WCI Communities, Inc., declared bankruptcy with more than $2 billion in debt. There is so little good news that the local newspaper ballyhoo’d when the region dropped to sixth place in March, from second in February of all regions in the nation for its foreclosure rate (April 15, 2010, “Cape Coral-Fort Myers foreclosure rate drops to sixth in US”, Naples Daily News). Apocryphal tales abound in Florida. The state is a graveyard for them.

Gusto filled the proscenium stage when Bush gave his inaugural address in January 2003. As was his want, Bush brushed critics off and gave words to a zeitgeist that still smolders in the hearts of Tea Party activists: “There will be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society,” Bush said, “than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers; as silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.” At virtually the same moment of Bush’s speech in Tallahassee, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, a former Orange County (Orlando) commissioner was laying the foundation for Florida’s future.

In late January 2003 Martinez delivered the keynote address to the National Association of Homebuilders annual meeting in Las Vegas. “We also must work in close partnership to dispel the myth that our nation is experiencing a “housing bubble,” Martinez said. “Bubbles of course do burst, but the housing market is not in the same category of other weaker and less competitive sectors of the economy… this Administration is making it easier for people to purchase their own homes – a change that will help drive home development and sales. And, it will help more minorities become homeowners.” Martinez, who would become a one term US Senator, yielded his seat to the current GOP primary battle between the state’s governor, Charlie Crist, a Bush stand-in; former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio.

Today, in its mainly GOP ghost suburbs, Collier County homeowners have forgotten all about Al Hoffman and the exuberance of Bush era Manifest Destiny. They keep lights on at night to keep copper pipes from being stolen. The Obama administration could reveal the scale of devastation–like flares lighting the nightime sky in the HBO series, “Pacific”– but requiring the nation’s financial institutions to mark their “assets”– formed of real estate loans in places like Collier County– to market is more reality than a nation, addicted to reality, can bear.

WCI Communities is, today, another ‘dead cat walking’. It is not a casual metaphor. It is the subtitle of a new series published this weekend in The St. Pete Times by investigative journalist Craig Pittman, 2 years in the making, detailing the struggle of the Florida panther for survival.

Here’s a sample from Pittman’s report:

“Most of the projects the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved since 1995 are in Collier County. The largest is the new town of Ave Maria, which in 2005 was given permission to destroy 5,027 acres of habitat that had been nine miles from the nearest suburb.”

Pittman doesn’t say, but it is clear enough that the Jeb Bush environmental destruction machinery caused Ave Maria, for the benefit of right-wing pizza king Tom Monaghan, to be zoned and permitted in panther habitat.

Today, Collier County and Miami-Dade County are aiming to pass a comprehensive master plan amendment to create a 1600 acre off-road vehicle park in the middle of the Big Cypress National Preserve; prime panther habitat. The state agency helping to push the plan is chaired by Rodney Barreto, a Jeb’s top lieutenant and left-over from the old regime.

In 2002, the Washington Post wrote:

“Al Hoffman is tired of the Florida panther… His business, after all, is booming. When he took WCI public in March, he predicted 15 to 20 percent annual growth rates. (The Florida House celebrated the occasion with a resolution honoring his “entrepreneurial spirit, unrivaled vision, strong leadership, generous nature and love of Florida.”)

“As far as Hoffman is concerned, it makes a lot more sense to use land to provide shelter for thousands of people than to lock it up to preserve vast swaths of foraging habitat for a single cross-bred cat. He has said as much to Jeb Bush. “What is the cost of protecting this bastardized species?” Hoffman asked. “How much land is society going to sacrifice?”

Apparently, a lot.

Tell the facts about the environment and the public groans and retracts. Tell “good news”, and keep the public engaged at least for a little while longer. In the 1980s, Joe Podgor– then director of Friends of the Everglades, summed up what is at stake: “The Everglades is a test. Pass, and we may get to keep the planet.”

Just last week, a federal court judge — Alan S. Gold– issued a stinging rebuke of the EPA in litigation brought by Friends of the Everglades for failing to follow federal laws in issuing pollution discharge permits to the State of Florida. Judge Gold’s ruling, to paraphrase, told the EPA and the state of Florida that his courtroom was through with the lies and excuses by the EPA and state agencies. This news has to be shared. It has to find its way to the public, where all kinds of constituents angry with government have yet to figure out the math. On that front, so far not so good unless you are a vulture: if it’s dead, eat it.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net



More articles by:

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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