Commentary

These days, it’s FL developers who are sneaking in and swiping natural resources from the public

October 27, 2023 7:00 am

Clearcutting is rampant among Santa Rosa County developers, in spite of the flooding that results. Photo courtesy Save Our Soundside

I was up in the Florida Panhandle to visit family last week, so I made sure to drive through Santa Rosa County a time or two.

I can always tell when I am in Santa Rosa County because it’s the place where developers are doing their dead-level best to cut down every single tree. They’ve been so successful that I’m surprised Joni Mitchell hasn’t showed up to formally dedicate a Tree Museum.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lovely natural preserves in Santa Rosa County, from the Blackwater River State Park down to the Naval Live Oaks Preserve, originally established as the first national tree farm in 1828 by President John Quincy Adams for the building of wooden Navy war ships.

Locals back then used to sneak onto the federal property to steal lumber, according to James M. Denham’s “A Rogue’s Paradise.” The federal marshal complained that he couldn’t do anything about it because half the grand jury was involved.

These days, it’s developers who are sneaking in and swiping natural resources from the public.

“There’s some shenanigans going on,” said Dara Hartigan, a Midway real estate agent who started a group called Save Our Soundside to convince local officials to stop kowtowing to destructive builders.

One builder in particular has held sway over county officials. His name is Edwin Henry, and he runs Henry Company Homes, which he and his wife started back in 1983

According to the company website, Henry Company Homes is now Northwest Florida’s largest residential new homebuilder.  In 2021, he was elected to the Florida Housing Hall of Fame. The press release about it noted that he “has developed over 90 communities in Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties, and built more than 18,000 homes.”

Henry certainly isn’t shy, whether he’s boohooing about affordable housing or as Hartigan observed, sitting at a county officials’ table as if he worked there while the commissioners discussed revisions to their land development code, which will still allow clearcutting.

In the past, he has frequently gotten everything he wanted from the county commissioners. He’s the Pied Piper and they dance to his tune.

For instance, in 2020, they allowed him to clear land for development without getting a required development order.

The county’s planning and zoning board had recommended they reject Henry’s request because it would set a bad precedent for other builders. But the commissioners valued Henry’s opinion above that of their own planning board members.

Yet it turns out Henry was hiding a deep, dark secret.

The Pensacola News Journal reported last week that Henry had been revealed as the moneyman behind a wild smear campaign aimed at a 2022 county commission candidate named Kerry Smith. Henry allegedly paid a consultant $13,000 to spread false nasty rumors about Smith.

But Smith wound up winning the Republican primary and thus the election (no Democrats ran).

Why would Henry try to sabotage Smith? As Michael Corleone says in “The Godfather,” “It’s strictly business.”

“My campaign was to bring impact fees back,” Smith told me this week. “Edwin is the biggest opponent of impact fees, and it’s a hill he’s willing to die on.”

The grace of Jeb

Henry’s influence reached as high as the governor’s mansion.

While president of the home builders association, he was also in serious trouble with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

In the late 1990s, the business agency alleged that seven of every 10 homes Henry built had serious structural defects. The complaints alleged that Henry Company Homes had brick walls that swayed when pushed by hand, foundations that weren’t level, and roofs that weren’t properly anchored.

In an unrelated deposition after he sued a critic, Henry admitted that the agency had had his company on the ropes.

“We should have went out of business, but by the grace of God we didn’t,” he testified.

Actually, it was more like the grace of Jeb (or “Jeb!,” as he preferred to call himself). When Bush, a Miami real estate developer, became governor in 1999, the business regulation agency fired many of the lawyers involved in the case against Henry and settlement talks began.

”I think I was fired because of the political influence Mr. Henry wields with the department,” said John Chaves, one of the attorneys, the Ledger reported. Henry kept his license and even avoided a hefty fine.

The 900-pound gorilla

Henry has made clear his opposition to impact fees because they add to his costs, making his homes seem less attractive to buyers. “Santa Rosa County encourages and promotes the building of affordable homes,” he testified in the deposition. “This is a blue-collar market. The jobs they bring to Santa Rosa County are low-income jobs.”

Yet Henry testified that his “affordable” homes were selling for more than $300,000 each. And his website says only 30% of his sales are to local residents, while 70 percent are to newbies just moving in — military retirees, mostly.

I looked up the median income for Santa Rosa County’s 193,000 residents, and it’s $31,000 a year. A Henry house priced at more than $300,000 is unaffordable for a lot of those blue-collar folks.

Hartigan, who’s been in real estate sales since 2003, agreed with that analysis.

“He just doesn’t want to pay impact fees,” she said. “It’s all about the money.”

That’s why he’s battled so hard against impact fees being levied to pay for the new roads, water plants, sewage treatment lines, fire stations, and law enforcement services required by the new residents.

As a result, the taxpayers get stuck with these large bills — or else none of the infrastructure improvements required by the new growth gets built.

Santa Rosa County used to charge impact fees on new construction. Adopted in 2005, the county suspended them in 2009 during the Great Recession. Somehow, when the economy recovered, the impact fees never came back.

“Edwin was instrumental in getting them taken out,” Smith told me.

Smith, a real estate agent himself, decided that would be a good campaign issue, which is why Henry put a target on his back. Smith may sue Henry over the false allegations during the campaign.

“He doesn’t like me because I’m good at calling out the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” Smith said.

‘Boss Hogg’ slams on the brakes

Politics in Santa Rosa County tends to be a blood sport. I once interviewed a former county official who’d been the target of four — count ’em! — FOUR attempts on his life. He joked that he had no trouble obtaining life insurance because he was unkillable.

So, I wasn’t surprised to hear that, after Henry’s attempt to block Smith’s election failed, he wasn’t done. When Smith brought up reinstating impact fees, Henry tried to throttle the fledgling effort in its crib.

At Smith’s suggestion the county commission hired a consultant to tell them what fees to charge. The company recommended fees lower than all but four of the 31 counties in Florida that charge them, the News Journal reported in May.

The commissioners were scheduled to talk about the fees last month. But then something happened at a budget meeting that dragged late into the night.

Toward the end of the evening, “three people were in the board room, and one of them was Edwin Henry,” Smith said. “I looked at him and I said, ‘What’s Boss Hogg doing here?’”

He was there to slam on the brakes.

At the end of the night, Smith said, one of the commissioners who frequently spouts what Henry wants to hear said they should postpone any discussion of impact fees — for a year. It wasn’t on the agenda, but it quickly passed on a split vote.

Commissioners cited “the realistic economic hardships” faced by developers as the reason for the delay. They made no mention of the economic hardships of the taxpayers.

A lot of Santa Rosa residents were unhappy at the way commissioners had side-stepped an open debate, and they said so. As the headline in the Pensacola News-Journal put it: “Santa Rosa commissioners quietly vote to put off impact fee discussion, residents revolt.”

“That was Edwin’s little finagle,” Smith told me.

However, he said, the public outcry ensures it won’t work. He promised to bring the impact fee discussion back up soon. After all, that’s why the voters elected him.

Money from your pocket

One thing you won’t hear from Henry is a lot of Trumpian bluster in the press. In the deposition, Henry testified, “I won’t talk to reporters so they don’t call me because I won’t answer the phone.”

Still, I tried several times to contact Henry to give him a chance to explain why he’d done what he’d done. He never responded. 

If Santa Rosa’s voters want a fairer system, one in which growth has to pay for itself instead of the taxpayers, they will have to show up in force every time it’s on the agenda. They may even have to elect some different commissioners.

That’s just in Santa Rosa County. If Smith is able to pass them at last, that will make 32 counties with impact fees.

But what about the other 35 Florida counties that don’t charge impact fees for new growth? Is there an Edwin Henry in each of those counties blocking the discussion from even happening, scaring people from raising the subject?

If you live in one of the 35, you should find out. Those folks are stealing money out of your pocket the way people in the Panhandle used to swipe free timber from the Navy’s forest.

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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. 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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