Screwy plan for a new Florida city outrages its rural neighbors
Sprawling development would be built atop area that’s supposed to be protected for groundwater recharge
The Corkscrew Grove development site in Lee County. Source: Screengrab/WINK-TV
When anyone asks me the weirdest place in our very weird state of Florida, I always say it’s Pasco County.
In addition to the usual mix of sketchy politicians and scummy developers, Pasco has the most sinkholes in the state. It’s got more nudist resorts than the rest of the country. The Klan once adopted a highway here. And now the place is infested with giant African land snails.
That’s a combo that’s hard to beat. But lately Lee County is making a run at the title.
Just in the past year: Lee County residents reported hearing terrifying noises that turned out to be frogs mating. A neighborhood feud involving a man named John escalated to the point that one homeowner lined his yard with toilets. Someone who got tired of navigating potholes planted a banana tree in the middle of a street.
And then there’s the reeeeeally weird thing that involves a company called Corkscrew Grove Limited Partnership.
It’s a pretty wild story, and several people contacted me about it. One of them was Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Like me, Grosso has been around the block and up on the sidewalk a few times, and he said he’s never seen anything quite like it.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: The buyer of a 4,202-acre citrus grove decided to convert it to a lime rock mine. Neighbors objected to the noise and traffic, and the county said no to the mine.
But now, after one legal win and the threat of another, the owners of the proposed mine have shifted gears. Corkscrew Grove has lined up a developer to build something different: a massive residential and commercial project.
It’s far larger than the mine would have been — 6,676 acres, or about 2,400 acres bigger. And the development density is a lot more intense.
“At 1.5 dwelling units per acre, the … site could legally accommodate 10,000 homes,” the Fort Myers News-Press reported last month. This is on land that, under the county’s own growth plan, is supposed to be limited to one dwelling unit per 10 acres.
“It’s a brand new city,” Grosso said. “This is going to be a major new development.”
So far, the Lee County Commission is going for it, even though, according to Grosso, this “allows a major development that otherwise is not allowed.”
Even worse is the fact that this land is part of Lee County’s “DR/GR,” meaning “density reduction/groundwater recharge.” In other words, that land is intended to get extra-low density to protect the area’s underground supply of drinking water. Meanwhile, the developer wants to swap some of the county’s own preserved land for some Corkscrew Grove land to build “infrastructure.”
This turn of events has upset some local residents. Further fueling their fury is that this new town is going to be built in an area that’s always been known for its quiet, rural lifestyle.
“The county is just over-accommodating a developer at the expense of the people,” Marsha Ellis, a retired middle-school teacher opposing the project, told me this week. Just the idea of cramming that many homes into this sleepy region, she said, “is nuts! It’s just bizarre!”
More than one person who contacted me hinted that there was some political chicanery afoot. I can’t tell you whether the Corkscrew plan is legal or illegal. But what I can say is that it’s about the slickest end-run I’ve seen since the football season ended.
Although, the way Lee County is acting, a better comparison might be the infamous 1971 Gator Flop.
Good to be the King
Here’s a fun Florida fact: Lee County is named after the most famous loser in U.S. history, Confederate Gen. Robert E. “Wooo-eee, Did I Pick the Wrong Side!” Lee.
Lee got the naming rights even though he never set foot there. Lately, there’s a petition drive to change it to “Bruce Lee County.” That’s an upgrade I wholeheartedly support — and not just because then the county’s theme song could be “(Everybody Was) Kung-Fu Fighting.”
The Lee County Commission doesn’t try to hide its connection to Gen. Failure. The first time I went to a Lee County Commission meeting, I saw a painting of the Rebel-in-Chief hanging in the commissioners’ chambers. He was dressed in his gray uniform, looking disappointed at what was being done in his name.
Perhaps because of Loser Lee’s historic example, the Lee commissioners are sensitive to the possibility of being losers themselves. That’s the nicest explanation I can come up with for what’s happened with Corkscrew Grove, which shares its name with nearby Corkscrew Road and Corkscrew Swamp.
The story starts with the owner of Corkscrew Grove, a Texas-based concern called King Ranch, which also happens to be one of the biggest agricultural operators in Florida. It’s big in sugar, sod, rice, and corn. It’s also, according to the company’s own website, “the largest juice orange producer in the United States.”
You won’t be surprised to hear King Ranch is politically influential, too.
How influential? King Ranch once worked with U.S. Sugar to arrange for our former governor, Rick “I Love A Regulatory Rollback” Scott, and a passel of like-minded Florida politicians to fly to Texas for fundraiser/hunting trips. Afterward, nobody wanted to talk about it. They wouldn’t even reveal whether Scott wore his Navy ball cap, a Stetson, or a pith helmet.
Then Scott turned around and appointed King Ranch’s top Florida executive, Mitch Hutchcraft, to the powerful South Florida Water Management District board. As Mel Brooks told us, it’s good to be the King.
In 2016, Hutchcraft was the guy leading the company’s $29.5 million acquisition of a bankrupt Lee orange grove called Old Corkscrew Plantation. According to the News-Press, that grove once produced one of out of every 100 oranges grown in Florida.
Two years after the purchase, though, Hutchcraft testified that because of hurricane damage and disease, the citrus operation was as doomed as an ice cream cake left in the backseat of your car on an August afternoon (I’m paraphrasing).
This is where things start to take a really weird turn. A corkscrew turn, you might say.
That blasted mining
You’d think a savvy company like King Ranch — such a big citrus producer — would have known in advance that this citrus grove they were buying would have trouble continuing to produce lots of oranges.
Or you might think that, once the citrus production faltered, King Ranch would try switching to another agricultural product, as other growers have done — olives, pomegranates, even hops. Imagine ordering a round of Corkscrew Ale!
But no. Hutchcraft said his company wanted to start mining the gravel from under the grove. Instead of planting things, they’d be digging them up — rather loudly, too.
King Ranch, via its subsidiary, Corkscrew Grove, proposed creating 10 mining pits, spread around more than 1,700 acres of the grove. The blasting in the mines would be in operation as much as 24 hours a day until about 2050.
You can imagine how thrilled the neighbors were about that, especially when they heard the mines would generate more than 1,000 daily truck trips. Their objections and those of environmental activists concerned about the aquifer convinced first a hearing examiner and then the county commissioners to reject the mining proposal.
King Ranch sued the county and, last year, they won.
“It was a horrendous decision for Lee County and the state as a whole,” the deputy county attorney, Michael Jacob, told me. “It turns land-use law on its head.”
Jacob summed up the 50-page decision by Circuit Judge Joseph Fuller Jr. this way: “The judge said the county comprehensive growth plan allows mining in the DR/GR, so the county couldn’t find it was inconsistent with the comp plan. …That’s insane. Just because uses are permitted doesn’t mean the uses are guaranteed.”
I called Hutchcraft for comment, but he didn’t call me back. Perhaps, given what happened next, he was too busy practicing the steps of his victory dance.
Waving the white flag
Lee County appealed Fuller’s bizarre judicial ruling, of course. But Jacob didn’t seem sure the Second District Court of Appeals judges would see the Fuller ruling the way Lee County did.
“We don’t know what they’ll do,” he said. “If it upholds [him], then it will apply to all of the DR/GR.”
Meanwhile, King Ranch twisted the knife by filing a Bert Harris Act claim against the county for, according to Jacob, somewhere between $63 million and $100 million. Not even a lawsuit, mind you, but just a claim.
Developers loooove the Bert Harris Act, which I have previously described as “the most damaging piece of legislation passed in the last 30 years.” It allows developers to claim big-money damages if some local government zoning decision hurts their development plans.
The act terrorizes local officials trying to obey their constituents’ wishes for restrictions on runaway growth, explained Susan Smith Erdelyi, a Jacksonville lawyer who specializes in such cases.
Local government officials facing a Bert Harris claim “go through a lot of angst,” she told me. “The stakes are so high and, even if they fight it, they’re going to have to pay the lawyers a lot of money.”
Yet, she said, most local governments fight back against these claims. They do so because they know the money to pay these outrageous claims will come from the taxpayers.
But that’s not what Lee County did. Like the county’s namesake, the commissioners waved the white flag.
Developer ex machina
The way Jacob explained it me, Lee County officials felt caught between the painful pincers of King Ranch’s multimillion-dollar Bert Harris claim on one side and a potentially precedent-setting appeals court ruling on the other.
Thus, they were relieved when a deus ex machina — excuse me, an Estero-based developer named Cameratta Cos. — miraculously dropped down from the heavens to offer a solution.
Cameratta promised to resolve Lee County’s worries about King Ranch if the commissioners would just give the developer everything it wanted. What it wanted was permission to build something that would never have been permitted under normal circumstances, Jacob confirmed, in a place where it never would have been allowed.
On June 22, despite the cries of anguish from folks like Ellis, and angry letters from environmental groups such as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the commissioners voted unanimously for Cameratta’s vague and controversial proposal. They gave the developer everything but the key to the courthouse.
I asked Jacob if the county had tried negotiating a different solution with King Ranch. He said no. There was no other attempt at resolving the dispute until Cameratta showed up. I think you could call that “interesting” in the same way that you could say that the Capitol Police being unable to get National Guard reinforcements during the Jan. 6 insurrection was “interesting.”
The Cameretta solution was the solution King Ranch sought, too, so the county greenlit this new community to be known as “Kingston.” (Get it? It’s a shortened version of King Ranch Town.)
I’d sure love to know how long Cameratta and King Ranch had been discussing this, or how their deal came about. But Cameratta’s CEO, Joe Cameratta, did not respond to my request for comment, either.
I asked Jacob if the county had offered to buy the King Ranch property outright to keep it from either mining or sprawl. County officials never even discussed it, he said.
All that’s left, said Jacob, is a hearing in which a judge signs off on everything. Grosso, among others, has filed strong objections to this approval. So far, no hearing date has been set.
After talking to Jacob, I sought the counsel of Wayne Daltry, who until his 2010 retirement served as Lee’s “smart growth” coordinator. Daltry is not only experienced, he’s pithy. When I mentioned that the county commission didn’t bother to negotiate, he said, “A surrender is not a negotiation.”
As for the rest of the Corkscrew Grove case, Daltry said it’s a sign of how badly the Legislature has screwed the public by gutting growth management. The state’s growth management law used to guarantee citizen notification and standing to challenge projects like this.
But when Scott became governor, developers spent big bucks electing a Legislature that would do its bidding, and then the Legislature delivered. No. 1 on their priority list was for the state to dissolve its growth management agency. Lobbyists wrote the bill dismantling the Department of Community Affairs, lawmakers passed it, and Scott signed it into law.
So now it’s up to the counties and cities — who, every year, are further hamstrung by Tallahassee — to try to keep every single acre of our beautiful state from being covered by asphalt. That’s why Lee’s losing attitude is so disappointing.
Instead of giving up, I think the Lee County commissioners should withdraw their approval and — in the grand Gunshine State tradition — stand their ground. I know it’s risky, but not as risky as allowing this rampant sprawl to be built atop the area’s water supply.
If nothing else, the commissioners should try to negotiate a better deal. They should tell King Ranch and Cameratta that they’ll approve a smaller development, but on one condition: The developer has to provide every single home with a front-yard statue of Bruce Lee holding a corkscrew. And explain to every homebuyer why that’s not weird.
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