Commentary

Even my hard-headed dad understood the importance of Florida’s wetlands

As a land surveyor, he warned a developer not to build in a marsh

January 5, 2023 7:00 am

Columnist Craig Pittman, right, and his father, the late Oscar Pittman, at left, in 1981. Source: Craig Pittman

We buried my dad last week. Oscar Pittman had a good, long life. He’d just turned 87, and he and my mom had celebrated 67 years of marriage.

Dad loved to tell stories and make people laugh. When I was a kid growing up in Pensacola, I used to hate going with him on trips to Sears or anywhere else because we were bound to run into somebody he knew. They would get to talking and what should have been a 10-minute shopping trip always turned into an hour.

I thought I knew all of my dad’s stories, from set-up to punchline. For instance, there’s the one about the two Baptist deacons discussing a fishing trip. One deacon brags that the fish he caught was so big, “if I hadn’t seen it, Brother, I wouldn’t have believed it.” The other coolly replies, “Brother, I didn’t see it.”

After the funeral, though, my mom told me a story about my dad that I had never heard before. It showed me a different side of him than the one I knew. It concerns Florida’s all-important wetlands.

Let me explain.

There was a good turnout for Dad’s funeral service. Many of the chairs were filled by the scads of surveyors he had mentored. My dad spent 55 years as a registered Florida land surveyor. He even taught courses on the subject at Pensacola State College and the University of West Florida, despite lacking a college degree himself.

Surveying is a noble and historic profession, one that’s perfect for folks like my dad who are A) good with math and B) need a job that allows them to take long walks in the woods.

George Washington was a land surveyor before he became a general and a president. So were Lewis and Clark, dispatched to explore the Louisiana Purchase (not to be confused with Owens and Clark of the TV show “Hee Haw.”) So was Henry David Thoreau before he began hanging out by a certain pond.

Some of Florida’s earliest white explorers were government surveyors hacking their way through thick swamps and forests to lay out railroad lines and county boundaries. These days, though, surveying tends to be tied more to the state’s real estate industry.

My dad made a good living off all the development in the Panhandle. But he didn’t necessarily hold the developers themselves in high regard.

One of them, a man I’ll call O’Malley, had hired him to lay out a new subdivision, but he had a problem: He couldn’t think of a good name for the subdivision. I guess “The Wilderness” was already taken.

Knowing that Mr. O’Malley was pretty sold on himself, Dad said, “How about calling it O’Malley Acres?”

Mr. O’Malley thought that was a BRILLIANT idea.

Anyway, the story mom told me isn’t about Mr. O’Malley but another developer who sounds a lot like him. This guy — let’s call him Bombastic Bob — was pretty sure he was king of the world and everything in it should bow to his implacable will.

There was something BB wanted my dad’s help in bending to his will. And my dad didn’t want to do it.

It involved a place known as Floridatown.

The Town of Florida

Even if you’re a Florida native like me, you’ve probably never heard of Floridatown. No, it is not where all the Florida Men (and Women) live. They hail from all over Florida, especially Pasco County.

Floridatown is an unincorporated area in Santa Rosa County, lying right on the shore of Escambia Bay. According to Pensacola historian Brian Rucker, an entrepreneur from Georgia named William Barnett founded it in 1822, laying out lots and calling it the Town of Florida. I guess he was the original Bombastic Bob.

This Georgian’s Floridatown “was the first real estate development outside of Pensacola in the early American period,” Rucker told me. Barnett built a sawmill there and set up a ferry for crossing the bay. The ferry ran until cars and trucks replaced it in the 1920s, he said.

People gathered in front of the Floridatown Hotel in this undated Photo. Source: Florida State Library and Archives of Florida

In the early 1900s, there was a rather grand establishment known as the Floridatown Hotel, sometimes called the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Both it and Barnett’s sawmill are long gone.

My grandmother once told me about a wooden dance pavilion built near the bayfront in Floridatown by her father, my great-grandfather. She said he inserted small electric lights among the polished parquet floorboards. That way, at night, when the twinkling lights were switched on and the overhead lights switched off, the dancers felt like they were floating among the stars.

Now there’s a county park with a playground, basketball court, picnic tables, and a fishing pier. People go there to marvel at the sunset. Some even have weddings. Because Floridatown sits on the edge of the bay, there are saltwater marshes there.

That’s where, in the 1990s, this particular developer wanted to build his subdivision — smack in the middle of those marshes. According to my mom, he wanted to hire my dad to lay out a high-priced subdivision atop all the wetlands.

She says Dad’s response was to shake his head and say, “You don’t want to do that.”

Paradise Bay of Pigs

To say I was surprised to hear this is an understatement. It was as surprising as it would be to hear an announcement from Tallahassee that Gov. Ron “Woke Won’t Work on Me Because I Hit the Snooze Button DeSantis will lead a televised ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre.

My dad was not a member of the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society. He’d done work for destructive developers before. In fact, I’d seen that firsthand.

Back in the early 1980s, I spent a summer as a lowly grunt on one of my dad’s survey crews. It was hard work. I collected enough blisters on my hands in just the first day of swinging a machete to qualify for a Guinness record.

Our big job that long, hot summer was laying out a new subdivision on land that was half swamp, half hog pen. The name of the subdivision to be built in this hellish location: Paradise Bay.

Live in Florida and you’ll never suffer from an irony deficiency.

Because I was just a dumb college student, I told one of my co-workers that summer that I didn’t see how anyone could build anything on that site besides a duck blind.

He snorted and told me that with enough fill dirt, you could turn any wetland into something temporarily dry and call it a subdivision. Print up some glossy brochures with pretty pictures and the buyers will believe it’s prime real estate — at least until the yard turns into a lake. We laughed and kept on working.

At some point after Paradise Bay but before this Floridatown job came along in the ’90s, my dad apparently learned that wetlands are important. They recharge our underground aquifer. They serve as habitat for a lot of important species. They filter out pollutants from stormwater. And they provide a sponge-like barrier against floodwaters.

I can’t claim any credit for this change in his attitude. I didn’t start writing about the loss of Florida’s wetlands until after he’d retired from surveying in 2000. This is something he apparently figured out on his own.

The wannabe developer, my mom told me, didn’t want to hear my dad’s objections. He wanted to hear how much it would cost him to get that survey that he needed to proceed with his plans.

Dad didn’t say no. Instead, he quoted him a price that was so outrageously high that the guy would go away.

That didn’t stop Bombastic Bob, of course. He found a less scrupulous surveyor who was eager to collect a paycheck and the development proceeded.

The fancy subdivision got built atop the wetlands, and people bought those houses. Put in enough fill dirt, print up enough glossy brochures, you know the rest.

And then, a few years later, the storm came.

‘Not a good place to live’

I well remember 2004, the year Florida got clobbered by four hurricanes in six weeks. The storms stomped across our landscape like a flamenco dancer wired on Red Bull, leaving quite a trail of destruction.

I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay hit by Hurricane Ivan . Source: Federal Highway Administration

The last of the four, Hurricane Ivan, smacked the Panhandle around pretty hard. The winds only qualified as a Category 3, but Ivan had a massive storm surge. The surge was so big it took out the Interstate 10 Escambia Bay Bridge, which had been built 13 feet above the water.

One American Meteorological Society study noted that “Escambia Bay acted as funnel and channeled the storm surge.” A Federal Emergency Management Agency report said that the highest surge “was 16 feet in Floridatown at the north end of Escambia Bay.”

The Floridatown wetlands that had once lined the bay could have soaked up that surge. The houses that had replaced them didn’t do nearly as well. Too much of what the surveyors call “impervious surfaces.”

Ivan wasn’t the only storm to swamp that once-swampy area either. Hurricane Sally did it again in 2020.

“It’s not a good place to live because of the storm surge,” Shelley Alexander, the environmental programs coordinator for Santa Rosa County, told me this week. “Floridatown winds up underwater after every storm event.”

The county is now planning to build a “living shoreline” along that area to try to fix this perpetual problem. The plans call for an offshore breakwater to disrupt the waves, and a “marsh sill” that will be filled with native plants.

Funding is coming from federal dollars that are in DeSantis’ budget for “resilience” projects. These projects are supposed to help waterfront communities cope with rising sea levels — and, in this case, really bad development decisions.

A hardheaded businessman

Of course, by the time a massive wall of gray water was rushing toward the residents of Floridatown in 2004, Bombastic Bob had raked in his profits and moved on to other developments. That means it’s up to us taxpayers to foot the bill for fixing what he did wrong.

This isn’t just a story about my dad, of course. This is a story about what’s been happening to our wetlands for years, something that has recently accelerated.

Bald cypress at Floridatown park. Source: Santa Rosa County

Two years ago, in the waning days of the Trump Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave its blessing to Florida taking over the issuance of federal wetland destruction permits.

A year later, the EPA under the Biden Administration was waving a big old red flag about a lot of the wetland permits that Florida had issued. The EPA said that the state was letting way too many marshes, swamps, and bogs get paved over.

As if to underline its point, EPA officials last week announced they now have a broader definition of wetlands to be protected than the, er, um, “business-friendly” one the Trump administration put forward.

Of course, the builders and developers hollered like somebody had left a burning bag of poop on their porch. Saving wetlands would inconvenience them and possibly slow down their plans for making a profit the way Bombastic Bob did. Can’t let that happen!

Listen, my dad was no sandal-clad tree hugger swooning with joy at the sight of a butterfly. He was a hardheaded businessman in boots and khakis. As a child of the Great Depression, he was determined to provide for his family the only way he knew how.

But even he could see that constructing a subdivision atop wetlands was a bad investment for the future. Burying them under fill dirt to build frequently flooded homes is pure foolishness.

Yet the folks in charge of Florida’s wetlands seem to be in a rush to let all the Bombastic Bobs keep doing exactly that, over and over again. They say they’re protecting the environment, but to paraphrase that Baptist deacon in my dad’s old joke: Brother, I’m not seeing it.

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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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