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Matt Reed: How nature beat the environmentalists


April 7, 2013

FARMTON —In the end, the corporation planning a massive future development saved nature from the environmentalists.

What a relief.

On a tour of the sprawling Farmton property last week, I watched a wading bird weave through cypress trees and knees that line every yard of the ancient, meandering Deep Creek. Rings appeared in the tannin-hued water when an alligator ducked below the surface. The only sound was the crunch of oak leaves as I stepped closer for a better view.

What a shame it would have been to sell this land as five-acre “ranchettes,” the kind you see everywhere in rural Florida: a big mowed lot with a house, propane tank, maybe a pony or swimming pool.

That’s what the Miami Corp. had a right to allow across its 94 square miles that includes most private land from Scottsmoor north to Edgewater and from Interstate 95 west to the St. Johns River.

Instead, the Chicago-based company spent much of the past two years fighting a local Sierra Club and others in court and hearings to defend a plan for Farmton that makes better sense for birds and trees and, yes, its bottom line.

It won. And paperwork it filed last week will permanently spare miles of pine scrub at Farmton from a future of riding mowers, driveways and above-ground pools. The Miami Corp. has dedicated more than 41,000 acres of conservation land to the counties, Florida Audubon and St. Johns River Water Management District —for free.

In exchange, the other 30 percent of Farmton can be developed as denser, higher quality communities over the next 50 years. The 11,500 acres in Brevard will include a pocket of 2,306 homes and more than 1 million square feet of commercial, office and industrial space served by central water and sewer.

By comparison, all of Viera is about 14,500 acres, with half that set aside for conservation.

“Look at what you can accomplish if you work together,” said Glenn Storch, attorney and spokesman for the landowners. “What this was slated for was fragmentation —the entire habitat corridor would have been destroyed.”

Risking nature to save it

Why does an attorney do all the talking for Farmton?

Because the company’s plans have had to overcome one legal or procedural challenge after another.

First, it was the old state Department of Community Affairs, an outfit so distant and sclerotic, even the most progressive local planners hated dealing with it.

From Tallahassee, the former DCA director denied plans, saying Farmton amounted to “sprawl.” Yet, the same process left the Miami Corp. with rights to build miles and miles of ranchettes. Miami Corp.’s plans got back on track after the Legislature gutted the state agency.

But then early last year, the Sierra Club sued to stop the Farmton plans, joined by an activist group called the Edgewater Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development.

Only neither group wanted “responsible development.”

They wanted to block any development at all. In particular, they objected to the river-management district letting the company shift some existing conservation easements from one part of the property to another to make the whole thing work.

“Two major roads through it, you’ll have nothing but road kill,” ECARD president Barbara Herrin complained to FLORIDA TODAY in September.

Never mind the alternative, which would have required dozens more roads and four times as much groundwater.

“You would have had thousands of ranchettes, with wells and septic tanks, with no chance for economic development,” Storch said. “I don’t know why anyone would think that is a better option, economically or environmentally.”

Real conservation

I’ve always believed in conservation and carefully managed growth. I’ve belonged to the Sierra Club. But I’ve never understood those who believe they can dictate entirely what others may do with their property.

At Farmton, I saw last week how that approach can hurt more than help.

Rolling down an old sand road in its forester’s SUV, I saw a hawk and egret, cypress domes and old-growth oaks.

For a century, the Miami Corp. ran cattle on this land. It has planted and logged pine for lumber and turpentine. It made way for two rail lines and built a bridge over Deep Creek.

Loggers and rail workers once lived in company villages here with names like Maytown and Kalamazoo. Hunters visit almost daily.

It is a testament to the owners’ stewardship that a Sierra Club website described Farmton as pristine.

Today, Brevard is better off now that so much has survived others’ attempts to save it.