tampabay.com

Yeehaw's Destiny awaits

A developer makes Florida's biggest land deal since Disney acquired its site 40 years ago.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published June 4, 2006


DELRAY BEACH -- Among the artifacts in Anthony V. Pugliese III's vast pop culture collection are Jack Ruby's gun, John Lennon's Abbey Road suit and Houdini's escape crate. To that eclectic assortment he has added the largest undeveloped piece of property to change hands in Florida since Walt Disney carved the Magic Kingdom out of swampland and groves 40 years ago.

Last year Pugliese, a developer here, joined with the founder of the Subway fast-food chain to make a successful $137-million bid for 27,400 acres of pasture land in southern Osceola County's Yeehaw Junction.

With Subway's billionaire owner Fred DeLuca as his silent partner, Pugliese has renamed the property "Destiny" at his wife Laura's suggestion. He also started sketching plans for a 21st century city that befits the name.

Masterminding the development of an empty parcel that's bigger than Disney's is a stretch for 59-year-old Pugliese, who started building swimming pools in New Jersey 30 years ago and for the past two decades has been cranking out self-storage units, office buildings and townhomes in South Florida. But in a recent interview, the multimillionaire developer, whose headquarters are in Delray's Pineapple Grove neighborhood, seemed undaunted by his latest acquisition.

"This is just as easy as a small project,'' said Pugliese, well-tanned and restless in his marble and mahogany-laden offices. "It's the same process, just a different scale.''

And how. Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, said Pugliese's development will light up one of the few sections of Florida that remains dark in nighttime satellite photos of the state. "This has the potential to change the face of Florida in ways little else would,'' Lee said of Destiny. "It pries open the interior of Florida like a can-opener.''

Though Destiny is years from construction, Pugliese knows in broad strokes where he's headed. DeLuca, meanwhile, offers advice but stays in the background. His

associate, Fred Florio, said DeLuca, No. 512 on Forbes' list of the world's richest, considers Destiny a good investment. "He's just got a deed in a drawer instead of money in the bank,'' Florio said.

But Pugliese doesn't intend to let the land lay fallow. Over the next few decades, he wants to create a self-contained city for all ages and incomes, where 100,000 residents can live, work, study and shop without leaving the city limits. Think Celebration with an industrial component or "Pleasantville" in living color.

"I want a place where kids can ride their bikes down the sidewalks and people can sit out on their front porch,'' said Pugliese, who describes Destiny as "a combination of New Urbanism and New Ruralism ... It's really pre-1940s living, that's what it is."

A graduate of the Newark (N.J.) School of Fine & Industrial Arts, Pugliese plans to aggressively court universities and "Scripps-type" scientific research institutions, dangling free land as an incentive. He said several major homebuilders, an entertainment company and a Delray doctor who runs an antiaging clinic are among those who have expressed a desire to join the project.

"This is the only parcel at this price and size I'll see in my lifetime,'' said Pugliese, who intends to retain control of the project as master developer. "It's a legacy piece for our company.''

The acreage in Yeehaw Junction, which had been owned by Latt Maxcy Corp. of Frostproof since the 1930s, didn't particularly grab Pugliese when he first drove its sizable perimeter (9 miles along State Road 60 and 3.5 miles south on both sides of U.S. 441). And he wasn't necessarily impressed when he walked the land, keeping a wary eye out for snakes and gators. Even a helicopter ride over the property, 60 miles south of Orlando and 30 miles west of Vero Beach, wasn't especially revealing. It wasn't until he looked at the parcel on a Florida map that he began to appreciate its potential.

Pugliese could visualize Orlando's development creeping south along Florida's Turnpike, which borders the parcel's eastern edge. He could foresee the surge of growth from the beaches, less than an hour to the east, and northward from South Florida. And, with the widening of State Road 60, he expected the connection with Central Florida towns like Lake Wales and even Tampa would become smoother. Another plus: Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is proposing two toll roads for the state that would criss-cross west of his property.

"When you look at what's going on around the parcel, you realize everything is converging on it,'' he said, with the assurance of a man holding the golden ticket. "We end up right in the middle.''

When Latt Maxcy put the parcel up for sealed bid last year, Pugliese was one of a handful of candidates interviewed by the family-run company, which owns a bank in Polk County in addition to its cattle ranching and citrus growing operations. Pugliese and DeLuca, who initially bid $4,700 an acre, weren't the highest bidders, but they swayed the descendants of the company's founder, Latimer Maxcy, with the dream of Destiny.

"The other bidders were billionaires who could write a check for the property,'' said Pugliese, who raised his bid to $5,000 an acre to seal the deal. "And they made the mistake of telling the farmers they intended just to sit on it.''

Though the family, which retains 40,000 acres adjacent to Pugliese's parcel, has said it's not abandoning ranching, that may well change. Harry Lerner, head of Maxcy Development in Tampa, the real estate division of Latt Maxcy, said there's no question the company is interested in Pugliese's development plans.

"We're not going to sit back and watch, I'll put it that way,'' said Lerner, adding that neighboring ranchers, who control nearly 150,000 acres, have a keen interest in Destiny.

"This is a great opportunity for something much bigger than what Pugliese is proposing,'' Lerner said. "It's all in play with landowners who are not in a big hurry to sell.''

Pugliese acknowledged that he presented his plans for Destiny to surrounding owners, but for the moment there has been no agreement to partner or buy more land.

"I can understand them wanting to be with me,'' Pugliese said, a sly grin spreading under his dark mustache. "And we could probably absorb a little more land. But we have quite a bit to handle as it is.''

Pugliese made a minor misstep this spring when a law firm hired by his company, Greenberg Traurig of Miami, lobbied state lawmakers for an exemption from certain permitting regulations "for properties of greater than 25,000 acres." The proposal was shot down by environmentalists and smaller developers, who were simultaneously irritated and amused by the ploy. In its place, Pugliese's lobbyist pushed for and won a slight rewording of the rural land stewardship program, which establishes regulations for developing a parcel of Destiny's size. "It gave us a cut-and-dried understanding of what we can and can't do,'' Pugliese said.

Lee of the Audubon Society dismissed Pugliese's amendment as meaningless, but said the developer's tactics put environmentalists on notice.

"I don't want to vilify them because they're just looking for a niche in the law to get a leg up,'' Lee said. "But it made a lot of us nervous.''

Pugliese and Robert Whidden, the Orlando consultant who heads Destiny's development team, have since grown wary of confrontation. Whidden said environmental groups will be invited to participate in the planning, which he estimated would require approval from nearly 60 agencies. The developer's consultants are conducting environmental and topographical surveys of the vast parcel, an area bigger than the city of Clearwater. Whidden said Destiny's planners will not be ready to approach regulators until at least mid summer.

"We're going to discuss the best ways to meet the developer's objectives and protect environmental concerns,'' Whidden said. "The art of the process is to try to meet everyone's expectations.''

Pugliese, whose collection of oddities includes enormous buffalo and elephant heads, is confident environmentalists will be satisfied with his plans. He said about half of Destiny will be set aside for open space and deflected other environmental concerns, noting that neither eagles nor panthers have been found on the property.

"Change is inevitable,'' Pugliese said. "Let's change it for the best."

While Lee scoffed at the suggestion that eagles aren't on Pugliese's property and questions whether preserving half the parcel is enough, he is reluctant to pick a fight this early.

"With sensitively conducted development, there are ways to make something work on that canvas that would be better than the way most of Florida has been developed,'' Lee said. "And it's encouraging to hear some of the things Pugliese has said about New Urbanism and compact design. But our experience has been that you have to rely on what they put down on paper, rather than what's represented in conversation.''

Pugliese, who has not estimated a total cost for Destiny, said the build-out could take 15 to 40 years, depending on how well it is marketed. But marketing is Pugliese's forte: He once promoted a self-storage project's opening by dropping Houdini's packing crate in the Intracoastal Waterway with a New York escape artist inside.

The developer has little doubt his latest dream will become reality.

"I'm going to be the mayor of Destiny,'' Pugliese said confidently. "And there will be no term limits.''

Times' researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.