An Alva pasture, via Amanda Cochran
I have a confession to make. Some of you may think less of me when you hear it. Others — well, you probably already have a low opinion of me anyway.
Since 1975, I have been a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. I rooted for them in their many lean years, as well as when they won the World Series in 2004, 2007, and 2013. I have cheered in person for such stars as David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. I’ve even read Ted Williams’ memoir, “My Turn at Bat”, and gave it five stars on Goodreads.
So imagine my dismay when I heard about poor Mike Greenwell!
The onetime Red Sox left fielder has made his Florida neighbors mad. In fact, a few are even suing .
They blame him for the ruination of Alva.
You’ve probably never heard of Alva. It’s one of those quiet places in Florida that still looks the way a lot of Florida used to look.
Alva has tall oak trees, verdant citrus groves, and lots of cattle in pastures along a two-lane road. The Caloosahatchee River splits it in half, so there’s a quaint old drawbridge that was built in 1960. Sometimes it sticks.
There aren’t a lot of people, maybe 6,500. Alva is a place “where you can find cows and alligators aplenty,” said Amanda Cochran, a resident for more than 20 years. “It’s got a real small-town feel. We didn’t even have a stoplight until a couple years ago.”
Now, because Greenwell wants to build enough apartments and commercial development on his property to blast that “small-town feel” to Kingdom Come, Cochran and her fellow Alva residents are angry at him.
It’s become, as we baseball fans like to say, quite a rhubarb.
Personally, I don’t think the problem is Mike Greenwell, the landowner who wants to make a fortune turning this rural enclave into a hot corner.
I think the real problem here is Alva’s developer-friendly county commissioner — who, as it turns out, is also Mike Greenwell.
Be careful with paradise
Some people in Lee County think Alva’s name comes from Fort Myers’ most famous part-time resident, Thomas Alva Edison. An umpire would say these people are off base.
Alva was named by its founder, a Danish sea captain named Peter Nelson, who laid out the settlement in the 1800s. Nelson named the town for a plant with small white flowers that he saw growing there because it was similar to the Danish flower called the alva.
Nelson, by the way, became a county commissioner, and then was suspended from office for drunkenness. He fits in perfectly with a lot of the Florida officeholders who followed.
Alvanians (yes, that’s what they’re called) treasure their town’s sense of history and community, and they have worked hard to keep it. They even wrote it into the county’s comprehensive plan for growth, pledging to make sure any development “occurs in a manner that maintains the rural character and lifestyle of this area.”
For 15 years, the county commissioner representing Alva was on board with that. He was a native named Frank Mann, a jovial old-school politician who once ran for lieutenant governor. As commissioner, Mann made it his mission to protect the area’s environmental resources, despite often landing on the losing end of a 4-1 vote. His motto: “Be careful with paradise.”
In June 2022, with two years left in his term, Mann died of pancreatic cancer at age 80. To replace him, his fellow commissioners hastily scheduled a special election for the fall. Five candidates launched campaigns.
Then Gov. Ron “I Love the Smell of a Fresh Concrete Pour in the Morning” DeSantis jumped into the middle of this and picked a fill-in commissioner.
To replace Mann, a Democrat, he appointed Greenwell, a Republican. He also happened to be one of the five candidates in the election. Being the incumbent gave him a leg up on the other four when the election rolled around, and so he won.
The new commissioner, who retired from baseball in 1996, was described by the Fort Myers News-Press as someone who “operates several businesses, including Big League Builders, a general construction company.” This qualification is entirely in keeping with what our pro-development governor looks for in appointees from the University of Florida board of trustees on down to a county commissioner.
Greenwell, when interviewed by the News-Press, made it clear he was a different man than Mann, talking up what a wonderful thing new development could be.
But he added that “we are fortunate in a way because we have Alva, Alva is its own little entity, I want to see it stay rural but that doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and get the infrastructure” for future growth “that makes it better for the people who live out here.”
This is why I say that Greenwell the commissioner is the real villain here. He claimed he wanted Alva to stay rural, but he knew that one of the major landowners would ensure that didn’t happen. You know which landowner — the one who’s an ex-ballplayer.
“To have our own county commissioner doing it when he’s supposed to be championing our area,” Cochran told me, “is just a slap in the face.”
Our fine Legislature has steadily rigged our state laws so that developers can do whatever they want. As a result, Alva is just one of a lot of rural areas all over the state in danger of disappearing.
It’s as if the pave-it-all crowd is drawn to the wide-open spaces on the map, determined to make them look like everywhere else.
Other big-money developers — former state Sen. Pat Neal, for instance — have been eyeing Alva’s greenspace for a while. But nobody had plans as big as Greenwell’s.
He wants to build a 400,000-square-foot shopping center and up to a 122-unit apartment complex on 76 acres off two-lane State Road 31, just over the bridge over the Caloosahatchee. The site has 27 acres of wetlands on it, and he wants to destroy more than 16 of those.
The commercial development alone is so large “it’s like eight Walmarts,” said Ralf Brookes, the land-use attorney the neighbors hired. “It would be the biggest thing in the whole ZIP code,”
There is nothing like it anywhere else in Alva. But that darn commissioner, the bad guy in this story, chose to push it along anyway, no matter how it would alter Alva.
“There’s no rural left when you start doing that,” said Wayne Daltry, who served as Lee County’s “smart growth” coordinator back when smart growth was something local government valued.
To make it work, Greenwell the landowner needed the commissioners to change the zoning from agricultural to Mixed Use Planned Development. But Greenwell the pro-development commissioner had a conflict of interest, which made this as tricky as pulling a double steal.
Daltry, who spent 20 years as executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, said a case like this one is rare, if not unprecedented.
“I can’t think of the last time a county commissioner submitted a proposal for a development that his own appointees would oversee,” Daltry told me.
Even if the commissioner doesn’t vote on the rezoning, he said, it’s still a conflict of interest. The staff he oversees is likely to fall all over themselves to give him what he wants. After all, Daltry said, “What happens if he DOESN’T get what he wants?”
There was apparently little danger of that with this project. County officials were so eager to please Greenwell they finagled the rules.
Unheard of and not listened to
Making the change in Greenwell’s property was a process more complicated than spelling Carl Yastrzemski’s last name. He needed both the comp plan and the zoning changed. County officials pushed both of them along with all the slow deliberation of a Chris Sale fastball.
The first step in approving the rezoning request was a hearing run by an examiner in November of last year. No one from the Alva community attended it, for two excellent reasons:
A) They didn’t know about it because county officials didn’t tell them. B) They were still recovering from all the river flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Ian. Turns out Alva is in a coastal high hazard area.
Now, a real public servant — one who has his eye on the ball — would make sure those two conditions would not prevent the public from having a say. A real public servant would have postponed the hearing until everyone had been notified and found a way for them to participate.
But that terrible Commissioner Greenwell, who supposedly represents Alva, did not look out for his constituents. He looked out for the developer.
A transcript shows the hearing examiner raised a lot of serious questions about what the developer wanted and how such a massive project would fit in with a rural area. In the end she went along with it. After all, nobody spoke in opposition.
But because the public was not properly notified, the hearing officer had to hold a new proceeding in June.
This time, about a dozen angry Alvanians showed up to object to Greenwell’s plans. They pointed out that it would require a wider road, a new bridge and a bizarro definition of maintaining “the rural character and lifestyle of this area.”
Oh, if only Commissioner Greenwell had seen how unpopular developer Greenwell was, surely he wouldn’t have sided with him!
The hearing officer paid little attention to the neighbors, once again approving the rezoning. Infuriating them further, Cochran told me, was that the officer told them they really should have shown up to object to the change in the comp plan.
That had already gone through the county planning board. The proposed change in the comp plan for Greenwell would so clearly result in a case of sprawl that county officials acknowledged that it might not be kosher.
So, not unlike the time Bill Veeck sent a little person up to bat, they got creative.
They proposed reclassifying 15 other nearby properties as well, for a total of 288 acres, even though the owners hadn’t asked for any change, Cochran told me.
“It’s unheard of!” Cochran said.
You could say it came at the owners totally out of left field. They didn’t find out this was in the works until they received a notice in the mail, she said. Several are planning to fight to change their property back.
Meanwhile, the county staff was racing to see Greenwell’s plans approved as if the third-base coach had given the steal sign and they were headed for home — home being the June county commission meeting.
In the dugout
I will say this for Commissioner Greenwell: He did not vote on this project. In fact, he wasn’t even in the commission room where it was discussed.
He wasn’t that far away, either. He was sort of in the dugout instead of on the field.
Brookes said the commissioner had moved into a room that was not open to the public, where he could apparently monitor what everyone said and what his colleagues chose to do.
A lot of Alvanians showed up, making the meeting room look more crowded than the pitcher’s mound in the famous scene in “Bull Durham.” They were not happy.
An Alva resident named Denise Eberle summed up the neighbors’ position: “The development does not support or preserve the heritage and rural character. It does the opposite.” Then she quoted the hearing examiner calling Greenwell’s development “a highly urbanized design with a big box and a sea of parking.”
When it came time for the commissioners to make a decision, something odd occurred in this supposedly public meeting, according to Gulfshore Business.
One county commissioner moved to deny the change. Just then, a county official entered the meeting room, waved over another county official and held a whispered conference with him. Then the second county official whispered something to one of the developer’s representatives.
The representative immediately announced that Greenwell was willing to drop the maximum height of the buildings from 60 feet to 45 feet, as if that were the main point of contention. The commissioners then approved the rezoning 3-1.
Afterward, most of the commissioners ducked reporters. Only one, Cecil Pendergrass, was willing to comment. He said he had based his decision on “legal, competent, and substantial evidence as presented and not who the applicant is or anyone’s political or emotional motives.”
Sheesh, sounds like he’s as bad as that commissioner who represents Alva!
In all this, Commissioner Greenwell has not said boo to his neighbors — except for Cochran, who says she bumped into him in Publix.
It went about as you might expect, with Greenwell yelling that she’d soon be apologizing to him for causing trouble. If they had been on a ballfield, he probably would have kicked dirt on her shoes.
I tried repeatedly to reach Commissioner Greenwell for comment on developer Greenwell. Just like when I was in Little League, I struck out every time.
Brookes told me that the Legislature hasn’t left the opponents of this or any other development much of a legal argument to overturn the decision. The suit he filed against the county accuses the commissioners of not properly handling the rezoning.
I hope Brookes wins and the commissioners have to redo everything amid even more scrutiny. In the meantime, I think all the angry Alvanians should carry a Rawlings regulation major-league baseball with them everywhere and practice their pitches.
That way, if they see Commissioner Greenwell out and about, they can express their displeasure with his job performance via a good beaning.
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