Gulf of Mexico
Wrecked car teetered on a buckled roadway following Hurricane Ian on Sept. 30, 2022, in Matlacha. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

FL - Old Florida growth rules thwarted development that would have made Idalia worse

Now there’s nothing that could stand in the way of a project like one that would have remade Taylor County’s coast

Last month, when Hurricane Idalia clobbered the sparsely settled coast of Taylor County in Florida’s Big Bend region, it sent my memory spinning back nearly 20 years to the first time I visited that area.

I was there to report on what was happening to hundreds of acres of swamp and salt marsh in an area that was aptly called “Boggy Bay.” This undeveloped acreage lay in the middle of the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, the state’s largest such preserve and one of the largest stretches of uninterrupted sea grass in North America.

On that warm May day in 2006, the only sounds I heard were the wind riffling through the Spartina and needle rush, the cry of a passing osprey, and the scuttling of thousands of fiddler crabs as they scurried across the mud flats.

But the bulldozers weren’t far off.

Boggy Bay had been targeted for a massive development called the Magnolia Bay Marina and Resort. There would be a marina, of course, and also thousands of condos, a hotel, a helicopter landing pad, a public aquarium, a marine science laboratory, and 280,000 square feet of commercial space.

“I think it’s going to be a neat thing for Taylor County,” the property owner, a wealthy 74-year-old heart surgeon from St. Petersburg named J. Crayon Pruitt Sr., told me at the time.

He wasn’t joking. He was convinced this would be just the thing to spark a Taylor County development boom the likes of which no one had ever seen before.

To make it work, though, Pruitt needed state permission to dredge a seven-foot-deep channel two miles long and 100 feet wide through the aquatic preserve’s seagrass. That would require destroying 105 acres of coastal wetlands and 36 acres of seagrass in the preserve.

When I saw that part of Pruitt’s development plan, my eyes “sproi-oi-oinnged!” out like I was a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon. I wasn’t the only one surprised and unsettled by it, either. Lots of other folks, both in and outside of Taylor County, didn’t want this disruption to happen, but Pruitt was determined.

“We have to have that channel,” the doctor told me when I interviewed him in his St. Petersburg office.

I’m not a big fan of those TV shows that play with “what if?” scenarios: What if Rachel on “Friends” had married her fiancé instead of running away and hooking up with Ross? What if instead of Captain America it was Agent Carter who took the super-soldier formula? What if Capt. Kirk turned evil and Mr. Spock sprouted a Van Dyke?

But it’s instructive to play “what if?” with the notion that Pruitt’s project was just 20 years too early. These days, hardly anything would stand in the way of a very bad idea like this one.

Florida’s rules for development have been bent to favor the builders’ every whim. They are no longer set up to protect the environment, steer growth away from hazardous areas or spare rural communities from unwanted intrusion by outside forces. Flood zones? Poisoned waterways? Environmental destruction? Not a problem!

If Dr. Pruitt were to propose the same thing now, “it would be very difficult to fight,” said Shaw Stiller, a Public Service Commission senior counsel who, back in the mid-2000s, was involved in the battle over Pruitt’s plans. “Anybody who chose to contest it would be looking at some major legal fees, too.”

Fortunately, at the time when Dr. Pruitt was proposing turning Boggy Bay into Magnolia Bay, Florida still had a growth management system that made some sense.

Otherwise, Stiller said, we’d probably have seen a whoooole lot more casualties from Idalia.

Like postage stamps

Taylor County is so lightly settled, the U.S. Air Force once considered turning it into a bombing range. Fewer than 20 people per square mile lived there.

There was a time, though, in the early 1900s when it attracted gobs of wealthy tourists.

The Richie Rich visitors flocked to its nationally known hotel and health spa to soak their joints in its sulfur springs, touted by quacks as having healing properties. They luxuriated in the warm water despite the rotten-egg smell. The resort even sold bottles of its spurious cure-all so the guests could take a bit of the stinky springs home.

Those days were long gone by the time Dr. Pruitt showed up.

Pruitt had made his fortune not from peddling a bogus medicinal bath, but by inventing a pair of innovative medical devices. One is a shunt that allows blood to flow to the brain while arteries are being cleaned. The other is a catheter that flushes out blood clots and arteries in the lower extremities.

He was generous as well. He donated millions to the University of Florida, which resulted in the creation of the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering. And he bought lots of rural land around the state.

In 1996, Pruitt told me, a timber buyer called him to say he had some coastal land in Taylor County that was just too pretty to cut. Pruitt said he drove up the next day and bought more than 3,000 acres.

Ten years later, he was ready to build on it. I guess he figured what was too pretty to cut wasn’t too pretty to pave over. He was fine with developing the heck out of the pretty property.

Read more.