Commentary

Gov. DeSantis pulls one road from the Everglades, but OKs putting in another

This is like getting trapped in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’

September 30, 2021 7:00 am

The Florida Everglades as seen from the Tamiami Trail. Credit: Marc Ryckaert via Wikimedia Commons

“Submitted for your approval …”

Man, I always loved that old TV show “The Twilight Zone.” First came the chilling theme music: Doo-doo-doo-dooo …

Then Rod Serling would warn you that you’re entering “another dimension — a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

Then you’d be immersed in a twisted tale awash in irony and amazement, where things were never what they seemed. So many episodes produced memorable images and quotes, like “My name is Talky Tina!” and “It’s a cookbook!”

Sometimes living in Florida gives off that vibe as well. We are, after all, a land of shadow and substance, a dimension of sight and of mind. A prime example happened just this past week.

First, look at this Tallahassee press release from Aug. 3:

“Today, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the completion of the Old Tamiami Trail Roadbed Removal Project, which was completed six months ahead of schedule. This project is a critical Everglades restoration project to remove nearly six miles of roadbed from the Old Tamiami Trail to allow more water to naturally flow south into Everglades National Park.”

In the press release, DeSantis says, “Since day one, my administration has been focused on expediting key Everglades restoration and water quality projects to protect Florida’s natural resources for future generations, and I’m proud of our record-setting progress.”

A month later, on Sept. 22, came the Twilight Zone twist (read this part in Rod Serling’s voice):

“Rejecting a judge’s recommendation, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet cleared the way for Miami-Dade County’s plans to build a highway through wetlands meant to help preserve the Everglades and the county’s drinking water supply,” the Miami Herald reported.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Yes, that’s right — the governor who had just bragged about yanking an environmentally destructive road out of the Everglades turned around and voted to put another one into the Everglades. Doo-doo-dooo-dooooo …

Did the governor explain his turnabout last week? He did not. He’s no Talky Tina!

But wait — the situation gets even stranger.

One trademark of DeSantis’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, in his view, local government can never do anything right. He rejects local school boards forcing kids to wear masks in class, and he won’t stand for cities and counties mandating their employees get vaccinated, no matter what the medical experts say.

Kendall Parkway Map from Miami Dade Expressway Authority-1

 

Yet in voting for Miami-Dade County’s proposed Kendall Parkway through the Everglades, he approved a written order that says a judge’s ruling on the case shows “a lack of deference” to what the county commissioners want.

The governor sided with a local government agency? That never happens!

My first reaction when I read all this was to ask: Who is this impersonating Ron DeSantis? Is this a cloning experiment gone awry? An alien abduction? Did a gremlin that only William Shatner can see chew on his internal wiring?

Will the real Ron please stand up?

Six whole minutes!

As I read more about the Strange Case of the Kendall Parkway, it turned out there was a lot of backstory before we got to the “submitted for your gubernatorial approval” part.

Since 1975, Miami-Dade has had an Urban Development Boundary — the UDB, for short — designed to shield both the Everglades and the county’s underground water supply from development and its accompanying pollution. Almost from day one, developers have tried to breach that barrier so they could make more money while apparently never drinking water or caring about the economic impact of ecotourism.

Three years ago, the county commissioners voted to breach it themselves, agreeing to alter their comprehensive growth plan to knock down the UDB’s protective barricade. It’s as if the little Dutch boy, instead of plugging that leaky dike, instead punched a bigger hole in it.

They did this so their Miami-Dade Expressway Authority — quite possibly the least popular public agency in South Florida — could build a six-lane toll road extension for the consistently clogged State Road 836 (aka the Dolphin Expressway).

The Kendall Parkway has been touted as a way to relieve the constant 836 traffic jams in the Kendall area. The cost: a mere $1 billion. The expressway authority, on its website, promised this new toll road would “significantly” improve commute times. Surely, it’s worth that much money to get home in a hurry after a long workday, right?

Environmental activists from the Tropical Audubon Society and Friends of the Everglades protested, loudly. That new road, they warned, was sure to open that protected Everglades area to new development and endanger the aquifer.

County officials pooh-poohed their concerns while shading the truth. One told the Herald, “It’s not in the Everglades. This is miles away from Everglades National Park.” Of course, the Everglades covers a lot more than just the park.

The enviro groups challenged the county’s comp plan decision at the state Division of Administrative Hearings, which is set up to hear disputes such as this. Often, because of the way the Legislature has rigged the rules for development permitting, administrative judges have little choice but to side with the government agency being challenged.

Not this time.

Credit: Getty Images

The judge, Suzanne Van Wyk — who in addition to a law degree has a master’s in urban and regional planning — held extensive hearings and listened to lengthy expert testimony. She ruled in March 2020 that the governor and Cabinet ought to kick this road plan to the curb.

The risk of ruining Everglades wetlands and fouling the aquifer wasn’t worth it, she said, noting that expert testimony said any improvement in commute times would be “meager.”

How meager? An expert witness for the county — which, you may recall, wants to build the road — testified that for a West Kendall resident with a two-hour commute to downtown Miami, the Kendall Parkway would reduce travel time by about six minutes.

A billion dollars to cut travel time by six minutes! I bet if they spent another billion, they could get it to 12! Of course, as Sen. Everett Dirksen supposedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.”

What’s more disturbing, the judge’s ruling said, is that experts testified that building the Kendall Parkway would actually make the Dolphin Expressway traffic worse.

“So, commuters will drive 13 miles, outside of the UDB, through active agricultural lands, through environmentally-sensitive lands … only to connect with the existing expressway operating at [a level of service] lower than it operates at today,” the judge wrote.

That finding won’t surprise any urban planners. Study after study has found that building new highways to relieve congestion just makes congestion worse because more drivers try to use them. Spending $1 billion on mass transit would be a much smarter choice, even though in Miami people have been known to use the Metromover as a way to carry dead sharks around town.

Ultimately, the decision about what to do about the Kendall Parkway wasn’t up to the judge. It was up to the governor and Cabinet.

And because Cabinet majority defers to DeSantis the way the adults in that one “Twilight Zone” episode called “It’s a Good Life” deferred to Billy Mumy’s terrifying 6-year-old, the decision was really up to just him.

It should have been an easy call.

“The judge told them it was a boondoggle,” Richard Grosso, the attorney representing the environmental groups, told me this week. “It’s big, expensive, unneeded, and useless.”

But when the case got to the Cabinet, it entered that weird dimension where logic does not apply.

The Tallahassee Zone

The judge’s ruling first came to the Cabinet back in June, where it was — say it with me — submitted for their approval. That’s when it entered the Tallahassee Zone.

A true Everglades champion, as DeSantis claims to be, would have seen this case as the equivalent of barrel fishing with a 12-gauge. Fire away!

Here’s how he could have handled it: Step one, point to the judge’s carefully considered and composed order. Step two, say he agrees with the judge that this is an expensive boondoggle that would hurt the environment and yield minimal benefit for drivers. Step three, vote to uphold the judge’s findings and announce his renewed commitment to saving the River of Grass from stupid human tricks like this one.

That’s not what DeSantis did.

Instead, after hearing testimony rehashing what the judge had already heard, the governor announced that this road thing was no big deal.

“It’s not like this is going to happen. I mean they’ve got to go through all those environmental reviews,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think it’s going to get permitted by the South Florida Water Management District. I just wasn’t convinced that this all needed to happen on the front end.”

Thus did the governor acknowledge that the Kendall Parkway is too environmentally damaging to Everglades wetlands to deserve a wetlands permit. Yet that wasn’t enough to persuade him to kill it.

Instead, he wanted the taxpayers to spend more money on pushing this allegedly doomed project through the approval process and then gamble that an agency that rarely says no to any permit would say no to this one.

DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said the Cabinet’s discretion in the case was limited to consideration of the judge’s ruling on the county’s plan amendment and not the road’s impact, then pointed to DeSantis’ own words to answer other questions about why he voted the way he did.

The situation gets stranger. Rather than adopt the judge’s carefully composed findings of fact, DeSantis called the case “fairly debatable,” and then said, “If the county’s position is fairly debatable, then we’d have to side with the county.”

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried on June 18, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline

That’s how the governor and Cabinet snatched defeat from the jaws of what should have been an Everglades victory. He, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis (who’s never been a friend of Florida’s environment) all voted to tell their staff to prepare an order rejecting the judge’s ruling and approving the Kendall Parkway. The lone no vote came, as usual, from Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services (and gubernatorial candidate) Nikki Fried.

What’s even more astonishing is that they voted that way after acknowledging that one Miami-Dade politician tried illicitly influencing the process.

Parties to a case before the Cabinet aren’t supposed to contact the Cabinet members outside the meeting. But, according to the Herald, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez left voicemails for both Moody and Patronis encouraging them to vote for the road. He said he’d gotten their contact information from a well-connected South Florida developer, Rodney Barreto, whom DeSantis appointed to the wildlife commission in 2019.

I have read the staff report, which is what DeSantis and the Cabinet approved in that cursory vote last week (3-1 again). Like the logic, the wording is so tortured that it should be reported as a violation of the Geneva Convention.

So who’s the real Ron DeSantis? The Everglades advocate willing to spend lots of taxpayer dollars on restoration? Or the politician running for reelection who’d rather placate big-money developers than vote down what’s clearly a bad idea?

It occurred to me that maybe there’s a third Ron — one who loves toll roads the way a kindergartener loves running toy cars around a plastic track. Remember that in 2019 he approved the Legislature’s push for three destructive, unnecessary toll roads that were dubbed “Billionaire Boulevards” by one environmental group. He justified it by saying, “I think we need new roads in Florida to get around.”

Then, when the Legislature realized this was folly and voted this year to mostly repeal the M-CORES plan, DeSantis signed that, too — but he had nothing to say about it.

Whichever Ron it was who cast this vote, I wish he’d realize that this is no way to govern this state. Thanks to his Tallahassee Zone logic, the Miami-Dade comp plan for future growth will no longer protect the Everglades.

Instead, for all the greedy developers salivating at the prospect of slicing and dicing those wetlands, he’s turned the plan into a cookbook.

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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 five 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. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently 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.

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