Development would’ve wiped out this FL habitat, but Destiny took a hand

December 10, 2020 7:00 am

The DeLuca Preserve, a recent acquisition for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Credit: U.F.-IFAS

Don’t you just love a good Florida story? I sure do. Not just the short ones, like the one about the Gainesville driver in a road range incident who accidentally ran over himself.

I love the longer ones, too, the ones that take a few twists and turns and wind up with a surprise at the end.

I heard a classic long Florida story this week from Audubon of Florida’s Charles Lee. It sounded too good to be true but, when I checked it out, the details were even crazier than he’d told me.

This story has some dramatic twists and turns and, to everyone’s surprise, resulted in a happy ending just last week. “Well, it’s a happy ending if you like the Florida grasshopper sparrow, a tiny bird with a call that sounds like a grasshopper, a critter so rare that it’s considered the most endangered bird in North America.”

If, on the other hand, you prefer a story in which developers win in the end, this story may not be for you.

It concerns a big chunk of land near the hamlet of Yeehaw Junction, where State Road 60 and U.S. 441 cross the Florida Turnpike. This is where the Desert Inn — a legendary tavern with a bordello on the second floor — stood for more than a century until a wayward semi driver demolished it a year ago.

At one time the “town,” if you could call it that, was known as Jackass Junction. However, while building the turnpike, officials with the state Department of Transportation insisted it be renamed as something more dignified — hence the switch to “Yeehaw.”

But I digress.

What happened to the town of Destiny is a classic Florida tale Credit: Courtesy of Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida

In 2004, a Delray Beach developer named Anthony V. Pugliese III plunked down millions of dollars to buy a vast swath of ranchland, citrus groves, wetlands, prairies, and forests near Yeehaw Junction from a rancher with the mellifluous name of Latt Maxcy. In 2006, Pugliese announced plans to build a new city of 250,000 people within an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.

He called it “Destiny.”

He also called it “America’s First Eco-Sustainable City.” It would, he promised, be full of biking and hiking paths, natural preserves, and lakes for boating. It would have “a smart-grid infrastructure” that would run the city and produce a “near-zero carbon footprint.”

Sure, all this development would wipe out habitat for the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, but sacrificing that tiny bird was a small price to pay for a far-sighted project such as Destiny, right? As the old saying goes, you can’t make a humongous, highly profitable, allegedly nature-friendly omelet without breaking some endangered bird eggs.

“What we’re really trying to do is create a model city,” Pugliese told the Associated Press at the time. “Rather than just going out here, digging a bunch of holes in the ground, and putting a bunch of buildings on there for retirees, we basically want to create a city that is environmentally sensitive to its surroundings.”

Alligator shoes with alligator eyes

Pugliese is one of those classic Florida characters who, if they didn’t exist in real life, would have to be invented by Carl Hiaasen. One South Florida Sun-Sentinel story called him “an eccentric developer who has been known to wear alligator shoes with alligator eyeballs.” His oceanfront home was so grand it actually had a moat.

On his own website, Pugliese declared himself to be “a pioneer, an inventor, a writer, an actor, an artist, and a designer with the ability to create impressive and award-winning buildings.” (I think his middle initial V stands for “Very Humble.”)

I spent some time on the phone with Pugliese this week, and occasionally was successful in breaking the rapid flow of his words to slip in a question. Among other things, he confirmed the alligator shoes detail (two pairs, bought in Vegas “for kicks,” which he would wear “whenever the environmental guys came around,” he said).

Pugliese’s hobby is collecting pop culture artifacts — for instance, the gun that Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the Wicked Witch’s hat from The Wizard of Oz, and Indiana Jones’ bullwhip from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He also owned one of James Bond’s Aston Martin sports cars, or did until someone stole it from an airport warehouse. The Sun-Sentinel in 1999 noted that police suspected Pugliese of stealing the car himself to collect on the insurance but could find no proof.

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Credit: Mary Peterson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This, then, is the guy touting an audacious development plan near Yeehaw Junction — not exactly the kind of gleaming metropolis that tends to attract swarms of well-heeled buyers. Could he actually pull off something like Destiny?

Skeptics were persuaded once they learned who Pugliese’s partner was: Fred DeLuca, billionaire co-founder of the Subway sandwich shop chain. They had been partners since 2005. DeLuca invested some $111 million in the project.

These days Pugliese doesn’t have much good to say about his erstwhile partner, who he described as “almost like [the movie] ‘Rain Man,’ a genius but also a wacko.” He’s also angry that he couldn’t get immediate approval from what was then the state’s growth management agency, the Department of Community Affairs, which Rick Scott abolished after becoming governor.

“You can’t stop development from coming in here, especially the way people keep moving here like crazy,” the developer told me.

As Pugliese struggled with getting the permits for Destiny, DeLuca became suspicious of how Pugliese was spending the millions he’d contributed. He insisted he wouldn’t spend another dime unless he could see a budget, a demand Pugliese thought was outrageous. The partners sued each other — Pugliese suing DeLuca for refusing to pay expenses and DeLuca suing Pugliese for the way he handled the money.

The dueling lawsuits revealed that the “model city” of Destiny was, like so many developments in Florida, built on a foundation of chicanery.

A “once-in-a-lifetime” gift

Under oath, Pugliese admitted that he and his business manager had created fake companies and phony invoices to bilk DeLuca out of more than $1 million. But he didn’t do it for nefarious purposes, he said. No, they were doing this to build up a “reserve fund” to pay Destiny’s expenses should DeLuca completely quit forking over the money.

“This may not have been the best way of doing this … but it was done for the best interest of Destiny,” Pugliese testified. “And all of the money went into the Destiny project.”

Except it apparently did not. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office pulled the records and accused Pugliese of spending DeLuca’s money on his own expenses. For one thing, they said, Pugliese had spent $12,000 for a chiller for his moat. He needed one because the water had been too warm for the fish and some died. The chiller was supposed to cool the poor fish down, like an underwater air conditioner. If only saving the Florida grasshopper sparrow were so easy!

I asked Pugliese about the phony invoices, and first he told me “They were real, but they weren’t real,” and then, “It’s not fraud! There was no intent!” and then, “So we made up a phony invoice — big deal.”

When I brought up the moat chiller, he called it “the most ridiculous thing.” What really happened, he said, was that he had contributed four chandeliers worth $12,000 to Destiny’s corporate office, and thus considered it an even swap to spend Destiny money on the chiller for his moat. Who among us hasn’t done that?

In 2012, Pugliese and his business manager were charged with fraud, money laundering, and grand theft. Three years later, Pugliese pleaded no contest to conspiracy and grand theft and the prosecutors dropped the other charges. He spent six months behind bars. To this day he complains he was the victim of corrupt prosecutors secretly working for his nemesis, DeLuca, but he didn’t appeal his case.

Five years later, Pugliese lost in civil court, too, as a jury found for DeLuca and awarded him a judgment worth (double-checks math, counts on fingers, removes shoes to count toes) $23 million. Plus, DeLuca wound up owning the land.

DeLuca wasn’t around for the final act of the lawsuit drama. He died of leukemia in 2015. His widow kept the suit going and thus reaped the reward.

Which brings us to the most recent twist.

In the course of all this criminality and legal wrangling, Elisabeth DeLuca “fell in love with the property and wanted to retain it in its natural state,” said Jack Payne, who last year retired as the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

That’s why, after about a year of discussions with U.F. officials, Mrs. DeLuca last week donated 27,000 acres to the university, Payne told me. Her instructions were to use it as a “living classroom” and preserve it from development, and that’s just what U.F. will do.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime gift,” Brent Sellers, a professor in U.F.’s agronomy department, told me. On his first visit to what the university is calling “the DeLuca Preserve,” he and other U.F. researchers spent four hours driving around, marveling at the ecological richness of the land. He still can’t get over its size: “I still get lost when I go there.”

The Florida grasshopper sparrows get to stay, undisturbed by bulldozers, as do the endangered red cockaded woodpeckers in the piney woods. There are probably other rare species out on that land, plants as well as animals. Nobody’s done a full site assessment of what’s there yet, but U.F. officials say that’s next.

U.F. put out a triumphant press release about the donation, calling it “among the largest gifts of real estate ever to any university in the nation.” The long and fascinating story of “America’s First Eco-Sustainable City” was conspicuously missing from the release. The name “Subway” never came up, and neither did the words “alligator shoes” and “moat chiller.”

If it were up to me, at the entrance to the preserve there would be a really large plaque, or maybe a couple of them side-by-side, to explain to visitors how this property nearly wound up covered in concrete like a lot of the rest of Florida until — glory be — it wasn’t.

After hearing this story from Lee, I tried reaching Mrs. DeLuca through her attorney, but he was the opposite of helpful, as were the folks at Subway’s corporate headquarters. As for Pugliese, he scoffed at the hoopla over her donation. He contended it was done for a tax write-off, and also to burnish the reputation of her late husband, a man he insisted was too cheap to ever give anything away.

Now that he’s out of jail, Pugliese is producing a documentary asserting the failure and lawsuit loss and even his jail time were DeLuca’s fault. I tried to suggest to him that maybe what happened was bound to happen, no matter what, but I don’t think he wanted to hear that. He didn’t like the idea that this was all a simple case of fate, or luck, or — oh, what’s the word? Oh yeah. Destiny.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.