Commentary

For helping desperate developers, Florida legislators deserve the Nobel prize

Sneaky effort would ruin tortoise moves to save builders some bucks

February 10, 2022 7:00 am

The Florida Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

Dear Nobel Prize judges,

Howdy! I hope you’ll forgive me for writing to you, but I wanted to nominate somebody — or rather, a bunch of somebodies — for one of your historic prizes. I don’t know exactly how your process works and, frankly, the results are sometimes baffling. I mean, how does Bob Dylan win the Nobel for literature while Carl Hiaasen gets nada? That just ain’t right.

Anyway, I always figure the direct approach is best, so here goes:

I would like to nominate the Florida Legislature for a Nobel Peace Prize for their many, many charitable works over the years.

They’re like Mother Teresa with tassel loafers and silk ties from Nic’s Toggery! Every time I turn around, I see our legislators helping someone out. They are constantly going above and beyond their obligations to us regular citizens to single out people who apparently need far greater assistance.

No, I am not talking about immigrants, or elderly folks in nursing homes, or minorities trying to vote, or families seeing their rents skyrocket faster than a firecracker at Disney World.

Instead, I am speaking of that poor, beleaguered group of victims known as “developers.”

I was inspired to send you this nomination because of something I first heard about last week — a secret act of charity so stunning that I knew it deserved public recognition. But first, I need to give you Nobel judges some background on our noble legislators.

The work that developers do often leaves an indelible sta— er, I mean mark, on the Florida landscape that we no doubt will appreciate for years to come. Yet they are constantly in dire need of help. I mean, I assume they are in dire need, because they keep begging our legislators to help them out.

Our eager legislators regularly respond to these pleas as if they were working the lunch rush at the McDonalds’ drive-thru. Every time I tune in a Tallahassee committee meeting, I expect to hear one of them shout, “Thank you for your order, please pull forward!”

Take last year, for instance, when the developers felt threatened by those meanies in local government who wanted them to pay impact fees to cover the cost of the growth they caused. The Legislature jumped right on that big problem!

A female gopher tortoise dines at Smyrna Dunes Park. Credit: Andrea Westmoreland via Wikipedia Commons

So now the taxpayers get the bills for new growth. They have to! Making the developers pay (and thus pass the cost along to the new residents who need new schools, roads, and so forth) might hurt their bottom line. We can’t have that, now can we?

Back when the distraught developers were having a rough time getting quick approval of their federal permits for wiping out wetlands, our public-spirited legislators told the state Department of Environmental Protection to take over that federal program. They did that even though (or maybe because) the state agency lacked the funding and staff to do the job.

Sure, the transition from the feds to the state has been a tad rough, but hey, you gotta break a few eggs to utterly destroy an ecosystem, right? Thanks to our legislators, developers can continue producing subdivisions with artful names such as Cypress Woods, Panther Trace and, my favorite, the Wilderness Country Club. (I assume they’re using those names as a solemn memorial for all the stuff that was there before the bulldozers showed up.)

No favor is too big for the Legislature to grant! Right now, amid a massive manatee die-off because of destroyed seagrass, they are contemplating a measure that would let developers kill even more seagrass. After all, who’s more important to Florida’s future, starving manatees or the developers driving our economy?

Here’s a great example: Starting in 1985, Florida had a state agency overseeing and coordinating growth. The Department of Community Affairs frequently picked on those hard-working developers. The agency would accuse their projects of causing traffic snarls, overcrowded schools, or flooding in the neighbors’ yards. It was so unfair!

The developers, not unlike a sickly kid sending a letter to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, let their legislators know how much better life would be without growth management. As a result, in 2011 our legislators completely abolished the agency.

Killing off the Department of Community Affairs resulted in a lot of layoffs and created the largest reshuffling of Florida state government in decades. It also made it much harder for the average citizen to challenge a developer’s plans. But to our legislators, that was a small price to pay to help their favorite charity cases.

They are so determined to help developers that they have continued to squelch the voice of citizens who complain about what’s being built. It’s just their quiet way of continuing to aid those whose plight means so much to them.

But even knowing all that background about our legislators’ generosity did not prepare me for the story I heard last week. It involves a highly creative approach to making it easier than ever for developers to deal with gopher tortoises obstructing their plans. Let me explain.

Get those gophers out of the way

The bill, SB 494, was supposed to be about derelict vessels. Those are a big problem for coastal cities here, with thorny issues involving ownership, maritime law, and pollution.

But then, at the Jan. 12 meeting of a Senate subcommittee, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Travis Hutson, brought up a pair of amendments relating to gopher tortoises.

You judges won’t know about gopher tortoises, I am guessing (although most of what I know about Sweden comes from The Muppets). Gophers are shell-wearing, slow-moving reptiles that live in burrows. They have a terrible propensity for digging their burrows in the perfect spot to build a subdivision or a condo.

As a result, developers are constantly having to move them out of the way — for their own good, of course! Hundreds of other creatures often live in those burrows too, some of them endangered. But the developers only have to move the tortoises. Isn’t that fortunate? For the developers, I mean.

Since 2008, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has operated a free-market system for these relocations. Here’s how it works:

Developers get a state permit to move the tortoises to a privately owned, state-licensed “recipient site.” The owners of that private land preserve a lot of gopher tortoise habitat at no expense to the state. Then the owners set their own per-tortoise price for accepting gophers from the developers. When they’re done, the invisible hand of Adam Smith gives everyone a high five.

But the free market responds to increasing demand with higher prices. As a result, with our red-hot housing market, the cost of moving tortoises has recently soared.

The downtrodden developers have been clamoring for additional places they can stick — er, I mean, gently pick up and move — the tortoises. Who can they turn to for help? Who would deliver them from these expensive critters?

Shout hallelujah, because Sen. Hutson was ready to ride to the rescue. His solution: Plunk those tortoises down on publicly owned land instead! Stick ’em in a state park, or toss ’em into a state forest! Problem solved!

“As our state continues growing and growing,” he told the subcommittee, “there continues to be a shrinking number of mitigation banks for gopher tortoises. So, what this would do is obligate the land management agencies … to consider lands that are greater than 40 contiguous acres as a potential gopher tortoise recipient sites.”

Sure, putting the public land into competition with the private sites ruins the whole free-market system. But it would give developers lots of lower-priced options for taking tortoises off their own land, where some of them have been thriving for decades.

That way they can destroy that tortoise habitat while moving the tortoises to public-owned habitat that’s already been preserved. It won’t replace the habitat that’s now being lost, of course, but really it’s a win-win — if both ends of that involve developers.

I wondered what eloquent speech the senator would make to the subcommittee to justify blowing up the free-market system that’s worked just fine for the past 14 years, just to save those desperate developers a few bucks. The speech was a single sentence.

It would, he said, “allow for more free market for the removal of gopher tortoises.”

I suspect Sen. Hutson confused the economics term “free market” with the practice by Publix of building a store on every street corner. But leave that aside for the moment, judges. The subcommittee members apparently understood him, because not one had any questions or concerns, not even to wonder what this had to do with derelict boats.

Then he brought up his amendment to the amendment, and that’s when I knew that I had to write to you folks in Stockholm.

The end run and its end result

Last year, a major homebuilder named Pulte Homes destroyed 22 gopher tortoise burrows in an Ocala subdivision. They were probably just distracted or something, and that’s why they obliterated the burrows, even cutting one gopher in half.

Prosecutors filed criminal charges against Pulte (see how persecuted the developers are?). Pulte pleaded guilty and was fined $13,700. Some whiny-pants columnist thought that penalty was too paltry and outraged activists called for a change.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a northeast Florida Republican. Source: Screenshot/The Florida Channel

The original amendment that Hutson brought forward would have done that, but only for repeat offenders. For a first offender, the penalty could be no more than $500 per burrow, which in Pulte’s case would have resulted in a fine of $11,000. But if they were convicted of doing it again, they would face a fine 10  times as large, or $5,000 per burrow. Pulte would have had to pay $110,000.

But Hutson announced that he had an amendment that would kill that part of his gopher tortoise amendment. Why, you might ask, would he do that?

“We’ve heard from various stakeholders and other members about these increased penalties being a potential problem, so this amendment deletes that,” he explained.

See how the Legislature cares for developers as tenderly as a mother hen tending to its chicks? Hutson learned that he was about to cause them some “potential problems,” so he cut it out immediately.

The subcommittee members nodded and passed the pro-Pulte amendment without a murmur of opposition. Then they passed the amendment shoving — er, I mean delicately placing, probably with a kiss for good luck — the gopher tortoises on public land. Then they approved the bill.

The whole thing took no more than six minutes.

Nobody asked any questions when the bill landed in the full Appropriations Committee meeting later; they just passed it along. Now it’s on the full Senate’s special order calendar for a vote. The only obstacle I can foresee to final passage is that the House companion bill lacks any mention of gophers, but I am sure they will fix that ASAP.

I was curious about how legal this all might be. I called Sen. Hutson a couple of times. Apparently, he was out of the office doing good works such as you might see a saint perform, so he never called me back.

Instead, I got an opinion from Elise Bennet, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, who said: “This bill was a creative end-run around the Constitution’s mandate that only [the wildlife commission] can legislate in the realm of wildlife.”

The end result of the end-run, she said, is that it’s likely to “swiftly drive down costs, which in turn will disincentivize private landowners from establishing recipient sites, which in turn will result in less protected habitat for the tortoise.”

So, our Legislature is willing to undermine the law to bless those beleaguered developers with a big win, meanwhile handing a loss to all those pesky, annoying gophers. Honestly, judges, what more can I say to convince you of how selfless our lawmakers are?

And they expect nothing in ret– oh, wait. Hmmm. I just looked up Sen. Hutson’s background. This letter maaaaay have been a little premature.

Turns out he’s the vice president of The Hutson Companies of St. Augustine. When I looked up their website, this is what I found: “The Hutson Companies currently owns and is developing projects in Clay, Duval, and St. Johns Counties, with total development rights to over 12,000 single and multi-family homes, as well as over 7 million square feet of commercial, office, and industrial space.” Presumably there are a few gophers on that land.

So, he’s a developer himself, and that’s why he was willing to push this back-door change to benefit his own industry. I guess that doesn’t count toward helping others, does it? Oh well, maybe his fellow developers can give him an award. Call it the Full o’ Bull Prize.

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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, 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 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. 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.

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