Commentary

New Interstate 95 interchange hurts creek but benefits Florida governor’s buddy

Controversial DOT plan helps developer who’s a key DeSantis adviser

April 7, 2022 7:00 am

Spruce Creek. Credit: Derek LaMontagne, Save Spruce Creek

One of my favorite things to do in Florida is paddling.

Not the kind that they used to give us kids in school. (I got one in the second grade and then my folks gave me another when I got home. I tried to take the punishment like a good soldier but guess which one hurt my rear echelon more.)

No, I am talking about canoeing or kayaking down a river or creek, listening to the rippling current, smiling as the otters frolic in the water, nodding toward the turtles sunning themselves on logs, and dodging the big gators. I once paddled past a gator that was longer than my canoe. The sight definitely made me paddle faster.

There’s a creek in Volusia County that I’ve heard is a good place to paddle. But the way things are going, I may not get the chance to try it out.

The name is Spruce Creek. It’s classified as an Outstanding Florida Waterway, although a better term would be “train wreck.” Florida officials seem to be doing everything in their power to get rid of it. Maybe they would prefer to call it an “Outstanding Florida Whatever.”

Despite its supposedly special status, the state “has allowed rampant development all over the area,” said Derek LaMontagne, founder of the group Save Spruce Creek. He told me he’s been working to clean up Spruce Creek since he was a teenager attending Spruce Creek High School.

The Florida Department of Transportation wants to plop a 75-acre, $50-million Interstate 95 interchange into the middle of the creek’s wetlands.

Now the Florida Department of Transportation wants to plop a 75-acre, $50-million Interstate 95 interchange into the middle of the creek’s wetlands — to support further development of what is now a rural area.

I think you could accurately call this an unpopular idea.

The DOT held a public hearing on the interchange in 2020. According to the agency’s records, more than 400 people opposed building it at all. Those in favor numbered about 60, at least some of whom worked for developers who would benefit from the new interstate access.

“Those who opposed the project referenced concerns for wildlife and environmental impacts with the interchange,” a DOT report on the public hearing says.

But all those folks’ opinions may not count. Why? Because that interchange will particularly benefit one big development company called ICI Homes. How big is ICI? It’s so big that it’s already spent $20,000 to buy the naming rights for Spruce Creek High School’s football stadium.

Other developers are likely to benefit from the interchange, but none more than ICI Homes. The Daytona Beach News Journal reported in 2019 that “the northeast quadrant for the interchange … is currently owned by ICI Homes, doing business as Pioneer Investments of Port Orange Inc. Across the interstate … is the site of the Woodhaven subdivision, another ICI project.”

By the way, if you get tired of saying “ICI Homes” over and over, just use the nickname I use to shorten it: “Icky.”

And just who is Icky, you ask?

Mori Hosseini, chair of the University of Florida Board of Trustees. Credit: UF

The company’s founder and CEO — the “Icky-in-Chief,” if you will — is Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, a big-money Ron DeSantis campaign contributor who chairs the University of Florida’s board of trustees. According to a Tallahassee Democrat story first published in November, he’s “one of the most powerful unelected people in Florida.”

Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s a guy who makes things happen. And by “things,” I mean he’s the guy who prodded UF administrators to cut corners so DeSantis’ new surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, could be hired by the university’s medical school in record time.

“DeSantis received $105,000 in campaign contributions from development companies owned by Hosseini,” the Democrat reported in its story on the politically motivated hiring. “He also lent his private jet to the first lady in 2019 to fly from Tallahassee to Jacksonville to attend a fundraiser by a defense contractor, who also is a supporter of DeSantis.”

Whenever Hosseini’s name merits a mention by reporters, they call him more than just a contributor to DeSantis. He is classified as an “adviser,” suggesting the pair are so close that they are, as Forrest Gump loved to say, “like peas and carrots.”

But those stories never spell out what he advises DeSantis about. I am guessing he’s not the one telling the governor it’s smart to pay Rebel-flag waving musical has-beens to write a bad song about him, or that it’s a good idea to sign the “Don’t Say Gay” bill at a school that doesn’t have to obey it.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at news conference Nov. 29, 2021.

No, he’s probably the one who’s been telling DeSantis to keep Florida’s growth machine firing on all cylinders, no matter what gets in the way — and keep distracting the public from the consequences.

Listen, as far as I’m concerned, the governor can pal around with whoever he wants. That could be Lev Parnas from Fraud Guarantee, or Ginni “I Love the Smell of Insurrection in the Morning” Thomas, or even Congressman Matt Gaetz, he of the sky-high hair and sex-trafficking suspicions. That’s the governor’s business.

But I draw the line at state agencies doing his buddies’ bidding at the expense of our environment — over and over again.

According to Wendy Anderson, an environmental studies professor at Stetson University, this particular interchange is “going to be a disaster.”

That sounds pretty Icky, doesn’t it?

Spending tax dollars to ruin what tax dollars fixed

Let me tell you about Spruce Creek.

The creek provides one of the state’s official paddling trails. The trail covers about 16 miles, beginning in a brackish bay. It passes through both fresh and saltwater, rolling under a railroad bridge and the interstate.

Bob Rountree, on the “Florida Rambler” website, says the creek was “once a pristine waterway lined with live oaks, sabal palms, and majestic hardwoods as it wound through the wilderness west of Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach.” But now it’s “overflowing with new subdivisions and new schools, suburban sprawl from nearby Daytona Beach, and more houses than ever are encroaching on the creek.”

As a result of all that development, Volusia officials say, the creek is already struggling with too much nutrient pollution, low dissolved oxygen, and a lot of poop (or as the biologists call it, “fecal coliform,” which is also the name of my favorite punk-rock band).

Credit: Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve

As you paddle along the creek, it passes through the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve, which covers 2,479 acres in Port Orange. The preserve has a 536-foot boardwalk, more than three miles of nature trails, and a 15-foot observation tower overlooking a marsh.

The state began acquiring land along the creek in 1990, spending $19 million so far. The purpose, according to a 2020 report, was to protect “one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land left in this region along the estuary of Spruce Creek and … to maintain the water quality of the creeks and bays here, thus protecting a fishery.”

By the way, there’s another 366 acres along the creek that’s on the state’s acquisition list, valued at around $6 million. The land that the state still wants to buy for preservation includes part of the interchange site, according to LaMontagne. He pointed out to me that it would be much cheaper for the taxpayers if the state were to save the land rather than put a slab of asphalt across it.

Although the state bought the preserve acreage, it turned it over to Volusia County to manage, according to Marianne Gengenbach, who retired seven years ago as the head of the Department of Environmental Protection’s conservation lands management oversight.

“Volusia County has done an amazing job with the preserve,” she told me. She pointed out all the hard work county employees put into restoring the preserve’s rare scrubland. The land has now attracted imperiled scrub jays, gopher tortoises, and indigo snakes, as well as eagles.

That’s why the DOT’s interchange plan seems so ridiculously wasteful, she said.

“If you put an interchange near an area where you’ve used tax dollars to restore the land, it makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “You’re spending tax dollars to build an interchange to ruin what tax dollars helped to fix.”

Time to do some paddling

In February, the DOT turned in its application to destroy wetlands near the creek.

The application says the new interchange would wipe out around 28 acres of wetlands (although LaMontagne believes the application omitted wetlands that would be in the road median).

That doesn’t seem like a big number, does it? The big number turns out to be in the “indirect impact” area — land that would be easier to develop with the interchange in place.

“The total estimated wetlands in the indirect effects study area … is approximately 7,500 acres,” the DOT noted in a 2021 report.

However, the people in charge of issuing federal wetland destruction permits will probably require developers to try to make up for all those lost wetlands through a process called “mitigation.” Because of that, the DOT contended that “the indirect effects on wetlands is deemed to be unsubstantial.”

Oh wait, you know who’s in charge of issuing those federal wetlands permits? The DEP, which has been doing such a bang-up job that the Environmental Protection Agency has objected to a lot of them. By the way, the EPA says this project’s impact on the Spruce Creek wetlands will be “moderate,” which is a lot more than what the DOT is claiming.

Anyway, here’s what the DOT had to say about all that environmental destruction: “No adverse effects are anticipated to protected species and habitat from the project.”

I thought that all the road-building crews with their dump trucks and concrete mixers and then the finished cloverleaf funneling tons of traffic off of I-95 into this quiet area would disrupt things. I feel so much better now!

Oh gee, that’s such a load off my mind. I was so worried about this! I thought that all the road-building crews with their dump trucks and concrete mixers and then the finished cloverleaf funneling tons of traffic off of I-95 into this quiet area would disrupt things. I feel so much better now!

(Note to editor: Please print the preceding paragraph in comic sans, to denote extreme sarcasm.)

The DOT argues that the interchange is necessary to relieve traffic clogs at two other interchanges, one to the north and one to the south, as well as to accommodate the expected growth of the area. (Why not make the developers pay for that instead of the taxpayers? Because the Legislature hates impact fees, that’s why.)

But the last time this Icky interchange idea came up, in 2008, a study funded by local government concluded that a new interchange wouldn’t improve traffic on I-95 at all. That was around the time the mortgage meltdown cooled off development, so the DOT let the project sit on the shelf for a few years.

But it never went away.

With the DOT, bad projects hardly ever disappear completely. Just ask the folks in rural North Florida who once again must battle misguided plans for a Northern Turnpike Extension that would forever change the character of the place they call home.

The DOT is especially reluctant to give up on a project when there’s a politically powerful developer asking for Mori — er, I mean more — help from the taxpayers to achieve their profit goals.

I put in a call to Icky to ask about all this, but all I could find were people trying to sell me a new house. They weren’t inclined to comment on the DOT doing the company a multimillion-dollar favor.

Honestly, digging into this Spruce Creek situation has given me a strong desire to head for Tallahassee and take some friends with me and do some paddling. And no, this time I do NOT mean the kind you do in a canoe. I mean the other kind.

Although maybe we could use a canoe paddle for that. It might make a bigger impression on the rear echelon, if you know what I mean.

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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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