The Great Slurp

Gov. Bush's Scripps gamble is sucking up state funds -- and the Everglades with it

Perhaps even more ominous than Montanaro's report is an analysis of the Scripps Florida plan by Joe Cortright, an economist who has done work for the Brookings Institute on biomedical research centers. According to Cortright, Palm Beach County lacks the local researchers and venture capitalists needed to make biomedical centers successful. Cortright, from his office in Portland, Oregon, says: "The fact that they are building this campus in a metropolitan area that has none of the key ingredients makes it seem destined for failure. It's ludicrous, really."

On a recent Monday morning, two of South Florida's top environmentalists took a field trip. Trespassing is what some might call it, as the pair made their way onto the now-wild land Scripps will soon call home.

Fred Harper
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.
Colby Katz
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.

Joanne Davis, director of the 1000 Friends of Florida, drove, and beside her in the Toyota SUV was environmental land attorney Lisa Interlandi. They made their way along a road of sugar sand that runs parallel to the C-18 canal, with developed Palm Beach County to the east. To the west was the sprawling J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, a 60,000-acre stretch of nature that nearly surrounds the future Scripps city on all sides. Swampland here runs west into untouched marshland that makes up the eastern edge of the Everglades. After a five-mile drive, Davis pulled over next to a barbed wire gate. She pointed to a poster-sized aerial picture of the territory. "This strip of green," she said, pointing to a stretch of iguana-colored foliage running south for miles, "that's where we're going to hike."

The path meandered under the cabbage palms and giant oaks, covered with lygodium vines that gave the area the appearance of a South American rain forest. The trail, running through the Corbett reserve next to the future Scripps city, was dotted with droppings and hoof prints. The woods rustled constantly. Not long into the hike, a jet-black hog halted in the center of the path, eyed the hikers, and then, grunting a goodbye, disappeared. "You see that?" Davis barked with excitement. "This area is teeming with wildlife."

Soon enough, at least a piece of this wildlife preserve will be largely bulldozed to make way for a road to the future Scripps site. While most of Scripps' new buildings will be built in an orange grove nearby, much of the new development that will surround Scripps will go in on pristine lands full of wetlands and wildlife. It is a place the county government tried desperately for years to protect and keep from becoming the kind of development that Scripps will bring.

The land has a rough history. The native people, who built a city of mounds here thousands of years ago, suffered genocide from diseases brought by Europeans. Seminoles, escaping the charging U.S. military in the 19th Century, hid in swamps here that were impenetrable to the army's cavalry. The troops merely surrounded the Seminoles and in time starved them into surrendering. Since then, locals have called that area Hungryland Slough.

In the last century, ranchers and timber companies bought the land. Some sold off to the Corbett reserve, and for most of the last century, the government eyed the rest for preservation, refusing most development plans. The Mecca property, where Scripps Florida headquarters will soon go, was previously limited by Palm Beach County to no more than one home per ten acres in hopes of keeping the land largely rural. That rule will be abandoned so Scripps can come.

Government officials have attempted to control development of Vavrus Ranch as well. In 1991, rancher Charles Vavrus submitted plans to the state for 18,000 homes and 7 million square feet of office space on the area now targeted for the Scripps city. Vavrus, an Illinois farmer, planned to spend $2 billion over about two decades on the project. He hired contractors, who drew up his project in two volumes about a foot thick each, and paid tens of thousands of dollars in fees to submit them to regulatory agencies. He promised to develop "with great emphasis placed on the preservation of existing wetlands." With little consideration, the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies shot down the Vavrus plans as too detrimental to the environment.

The old Vavrus project is remarkably similar to the new plan for Scripps, which will be surrounded by 10,000 homes, more than a half-million square feet of commercial space, and 2 million square feet of research labs and offices. In just a few years, the new Scripps city would rival west-county towns established for decades, eclipsing Belle Glade and perhaps even Wellington (population 40,000). But no government officials have objected as they did to the Vavrus project.

With orders from Bush, the 80 or so agencies that must review such a massive project have agreed to a fast-track schedule, requiring them to spend no more than three months reviewing it. Even the federal agencies, under the auspices of the governor's brother, have agreed to attempt the deadline. The Army Corps, which typically takes two or more years to approve such plans, will try to finish within the three-month deadline. All of the reviews are expected to be completed in August.

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