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Profit & loss

A huge development plannedfor Taylor Countywould bring upheaval to one of the last unspoiled regions of Florida's Nature Coast. In the name of "progress."

Published June 11, 2006

Every square inch of Florida earth is subject to transformation by bulldozer: Will that parcel become a theme park, a New Urbanist village, a hotel? Or will it remain a tangle of mangrove, palmetto and cypress, a haunt of bear, gator and heron?

Every square inch of Florida earth is also subject to transformation by hurricane. Over the past few seasons, we've seen hurricanes cut islands in half, inundate towns, suck the sand off beaches, mangle roads and reduce everything from single-wides to mansions to flying splinters, shards of glass and the pink cobwebby remains of insulation. Yet we persist in building on the beach - daring the storm to mess with the profit motive.

Looking at plans for a new "resort" on an unspoiled stretch of Taylor County shore, you'd think Katrina, Dennis, Ivan, Camille, Donna and all the never-christened tempests that have always torn up our coasts were just a bad dream. In the artist's rendering, the lagoon is Eleuthera blue, the grass Augusta green. Condo towers as tall as any you'll see in Sarasota or Fort Lauderdale guarantee, as the ad says, "scenic views and sunsets." The sketch doesn't show the life-sustaining wetlands that have fed this place for thousands of years: They are to be drained and filled, destroyed to make solid ground.

As Craig Pittman reported in this newspaper on Monday, a distinguished doctor from St. Petersburg and a Treasure Island developer with a felony conviction are behind this megaplex. If they get their way, condos, shops, parking lots, hotels, a helipad and, eventually, an RV facility and championship golf course will land with a killing thud on Florida's longest - almost Florida's last - pristine coastline.

Oh, and they also want to dig a 2-mile, 100-foot-wide channel deep enough for 45-foot yachts, through the sea grass meadows of a publicly owned aquatic preserve.

* * *

The area from Wakulla County south to Hernando is called the "Nature Coast," and it's about as, well, natural, as any place can be in this overbuilt, overrun state. Here, the sea grasses in the shallow water nurture juvenile fish, such as grouper and sea trout, as well as Florida's last flourishing population of bay scallops. The salt marshes sustain osprey, eagles and turtles. The freshwater wetlands filter runoff.

Maybe not for much longer. Dr. J. Crayton Pruitt, a surgeon, inventor and philanthropist, owns 3,780 acres on the Nature Coast. The marina and resort are only the first phase of what Chuck Olson, the developer with the dubious past, calls "Dr. Pruitt's vision." The place is called Boggy Bay. But, just as the St. Joe company is trying to rebrand the Panhandle as "Florida's Great Northwest" (apparently "panhandle" reeks of redneck poverty), Pruitt's company, Secret Promise Ltd. Properties, means to rename it "Magnolia Bay." It sounds more expensive. And less damp.

Olson, interviewed before the Times revealed that he had pleaded no contest to two cocaine-related felonies in 1993, says Magnolia Bay is not about making Pruitt even richer than he already is. Indeed, Olson insists the project is dedicated to "helping Taylor County - a county of critical economic concern." He claims the resort will create jobs and points out that since much of the Nature Coast is mandated to remain wild, Magnolia Bay will increase people's ability to enjoy the Gulf of Mexico: "We will provide greater public access via our marina."

A lot of people in Taylor County seem unmoved by this largesse. "It's nothing less than the destruction of the Nature Coast," says Sonny Parker of Perry. "The state bought the coast to preserve it. We want the fish left alone."

Rick Causey, a resident of Dekle Beach, a tiny hamlet next to the development, points out that it's actually quite easy to get out on the water: "There are two public boat ramps within 3 miles of Boggy Bay." The only problem is that sometimes, on holiday weekends, things get pretty crowded. "If Olsen and Pruitt really want to do something for the people of Taylor County," says Causey, "they could go buy 5 acres adjacent to Keaton Beach landing and build us a parking lot."

Causey is an environmental expert, a former district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He's most distressed that the plans call for carving the yacht channel through the Big Bend Sea Grasses Preserve. About 36 acres of sea grass will be ripped up, killing critical habitat. Adding insult to injury, Secret Promise also plans to dredge and fill 35 acres of salt marsh. "There are many, many important species that depend on that habitat," says Causey. "I've seen bald eagles nesting on Dr. Pruitt's land. White pelicans feed on the organisms that live in the area he wants to dredge. We have the largest sea grass beds in the world. Why ruin them?"

Olson counters that environmentally it's no big deal: The company will transplant the grasses "like you'd plant sod." This is known as "mitigation." A developer "pays" for what he harms. Sort of. Under Bush administration rules, a pond on a golf course counts as a replacement for substantial wetlands.

Dr. Felicia Coleman, a marine biologist and head of Florida State University's Marine Laboratory, begs to differ with Olson's implication that you can relocate the vegetation and the wildlife will never know the difference: "A lot of that type of mitigation does not work. It's not good habitat."

Nonetheless, Secret Promise has located a big bare patch in the gulf where they think they might transplant the sea grass beds decimated by their channel: It's near the mouth of the notoriously dirty Fenholloway River, site of a pollutant-spewing pipe from the Buckeye Cellulose plant in Perry.

No matter how it's dressed up, scraping a huge, long, heavy-use channel through the shallow gulf waters "will be devastating," says Coleman. "And it's not just that big old channel, either. There's the question of runoff from all the buildings, sewage treatment, etc. We are talking about a major impact."

Olson insists Magnolia Bay will actually improve the environment - never mind the convention hotels, the 624 condos, the 280,000 square feet of commercial space; never mind the daily oil leakage from hundreds of boats, the fumes from hundreds of cars. "We're going to enhance it," he says. "Make it better."

In the developer's Looking Glass logic, this ecosystem must be destroyed in order to save it.

* * *

Florida has always been about creating something from nothing: Before Henry Flagler, Palm Beach was a bald barrier island inhabited by Confederate draft dodgers and scavengers; before George Merrick, Coral Gables was nothing but pine flats. Of course, the "nothing" was really a complex environmental system. But the idea of Nature tamed and infrastructure added is seductive. Mere Nature can be made profitable. Many residents of Taylor County want their piece of Florida's pie, too. Median household income there is a little under $31,000 - more than $10,000 less than the national average.

In its search for a moneymaker, Taylor County sometimes comes up with weird schemes. Like the bombing range. The Air Force, encouraged by some county commissioners, thought the sparsely populated Nature Coast might be a better place than the built-up areas near Eglin Air Force Base to practice bombing. The plan fell though when the two guys brokering the classic Florida beach-front-for-swamp-land swap went to jail for fraud.

Taylor County belongs to the Other Florida: more trees than people - the population is less than 20,000 - more bait shacks than sushi bars, more mullet than malls. It's still largely wild, with broad and serene salt marshes, springs, forests and wetlands. It's also tough - always has been. When Panfilo de Narvaez and the conquistadors came tramping north from Tampa Bay, the Apalachee would appear "like ghosts" (as Cabeza de Vaca said) shooting arrows from behind the trees. During the Civil War, deserters would "lay out" in the thick woods and tricky swamps. Despite their historic aversion to fighting the Union Army, you still see a lot of Rebel flags today.

"When you come into Taylor County," sighs Joy Towles Ezell, who comes from an old local family, "you set your watch back 40 years."

The economics of rural North Florida - as opposed to the social attitudes - may only be 20 years behind South Florida's, at least when it comes to embracing development. But the region is catching up fast. Tallahassee has long been regarded as a tree-hugging town where, as developers complained bitterly, it could take more than a year to get a permit for some vital strip mall or subdivision. But the capital city is changing its ways, building like there's no tomorrow and embracing a good old-fashioned source of cheap energy and old-fashioned pollution: coal. Tallahassee and three other municipalities are set to offer Taylor County $170-million to build a coal-fired power plant.

The Taylor County Commission and Chamber of Commerce cheerlead for both the coal plant and Magnolia Bay, claiming they could generate jobs (presumably cleaning hotel rooms and groundskeeping the golf course) and more than $8-million in taxes. Ezell says, unimpressed, "If they think it'll put five dollars in their pockets or in their friends' pockets, they're for it."

It's overly simplistic to say that the county can be divided into Boggy Bay partisans and Magnolia Bay boosters, but attitudes are hardening between those who would rather foster fishing, bird-watching and other types of ecotourism and those who want to make some money and feel Nature can damn well fend for herself. Each side accuses the other of dishonorable motives and base tactics. Sonny Parker, who's running for a seat on the County Commission, charges that prodevelopment officials and people associated with Secret Promise are going around claiming that Magnolia Bay already has the necessary building permits in order to create the impression of inevitability.

Olson rejects that claim. He says he just wants to help Taylor County pull itself out of poverty. He even sees the resort as democratic. Because so much of the Nature Coast is conservation land - part of all Floridians' environmental patrimony - Olson says, "Taylor County has been robbed of its development rights."

"We don't need their money," says Parker. "We survived a hundred years before Olson and Pruitt, and we'll survive after they're gone. You can't put a price tag on what God put here."

Olson accuses those who oppose Magnolia Bay of NIMBY-ism: "People in Dekle Beach get mad if you drive down a public road there. They've got their piece of paradise and now want to deny others one."

All politics may be local, but environmental politics have a way of expanding beyond the particular wetlands being lost, the particular habitat wrecked. Rick Causey points out that Magnolia Bay will affect the ecosystem far beyond Taylor County. Grouper and other migratory species grow up and leave their sea grass nurseries, going as far away as Texas. "This impacts the entire Gulf of Mexico," says Causey. "It's a national issue. The fish don't know where the Taylor County line is."

Felicia Coleman says that between the dredging of the channel and the filling of the wetland, "if you expect people to go fishing, you've just destroyed a good chunk of productivity. With the nursery habitat impaired, the fish will be gone."

The hurricanes don't know where the Taylor County line is, either. Still, Chuck Olson is not worried: "We're not building shacks at Magnolia Bay; these are concrete, solid structures." Besides, he says, "Taylor County has a less than 1 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane."

Some Gulf Coast residents laugh out loud at Olson's "voodoo statistics." Causey points out, "We live in potentially the highest surge area on the Gulf of Mexico."

Ezell says it's not the wind, it's the water. She lives 12 miles from the coast and tells how in the no-name storm of 1993, "I had whitecaps in my front yard." Fifty-seven houses in Dekle Beach were destroyed and 10 people were killed. This is with the wetlands intact. Felicia Coleman says the wetlands are not just for "ecosystem services," providing the right kind of habitat for birds, turtles and fish and "filtering pollutants," but for "slowing wave action in a storm - dampening of the effects of a hurricane."

The Gulf Coast takes care of itself in a complex interplay between salt marsh and sea grass meadow, fresh wetland and hammock. Hurricanes are part of that dance - condos and dredging are not. Florida will always be divided between those who think building on it improves it, and those who value the land itself and would hate to see the Nature Coast on a leash, dredged, drained and paved for our temporary convenience and pleasure. What is the price of the creatures in the wetlands, woods and grasses? Is it ever, in Florida, possible to choose beauty over money?

"Dr. Pruitt is a man who has dedicated himself to saving lives," says Rick Causey. "I don't understand why he now wants to turn around and kill this ecosystem. That's what Magnolia Bay will do. Kill it."

Diane Roberts is the author of Dream State, a book about Florida. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 11, 2006, 06:16:34]

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