By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The development is an abomination, a blight on South Florida, a bitter insult to Mother Nature herself. And like all bad projects, it is being greased through City Hall with the basest lubricant there is: cold cash.
The monstrosity in question is the aptly named Everglades Corporate Park, about ten stories of hotel and office space slated to be built in Sunrise, the first such development ever to be built on the west side of the Sawgrass Expressway.
Today, it's a parcel of raw land next to a wide canal at the foot of the Everglades. Tomorrow, if the developers and lobbyists have their way, it will be a monolithic hotel towering over the wetlands, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and commercial space. The now-picturesque canal will be built up with a seawall.
The project, to be located just north of Sunrise Boulevard, is an aesthetic monstrosity, and it will sit on a stage overlooking the River of Grass. It is an egregious violation of the near-sacred if unofficial boundary line between the Everglades and humanity that is the Sawgrass Expressway. And so far, it has quietly slinked toward its awful conclusion, shepherded along by a compliant City of Sunrise.
Spearheading the assault on our good senses is the developer, Kentucky-based Sawgrass Investors, and its team, which consists of the high-powered Ruden McClosky legal and lobbying firm and a former Coral Springs mayor, Rhon Ernest-Jones, whose firm is engineering the project.
In their bid to obtain a key zoning change and avoid environmental scrutiny, they have been busy stuffing a couple of key Sunrise commissioners' pockets with cash for their reelection campaigns.
It's a time-honored, perfectly legal, and terribly sleazy strategy — and a vote taken last month on the zoning change indicates it is working.
The development is an aberration, as its owners were given unique development rights when the Sawgrass Expressway was built in the late 1980s. It is flanked by conservation land on its west, north, and south boundaries.
Previous attempts to build there have thankfully languished as zoning battles ensued and development approvals expired.
But even as the land has remained unpaved, the size of the planned project has ballooned. In 1994, the county approved a plan to build a 200-room hotel on the 22-acre site. In 2000, the developer at the time, 70 Inc., asked to replace the hotel plan with 450,000 square feet of office space.
The next year, the county approved a new plan to build a whopping 800,000 square feet of offices on the triangular piece of land.
That plan expired in 2005. By that time, Sawgrass Investors had purchased the land, and this year, the developer pumped up the project with steroids, producing a scheme that dwarfs the others.
The company has proposed a project that includes a 350-room hotel, 634,000 square feet of offices, and 30,000 square feet of commercial space. The county approved the plan in April, though planners warned that it was so large that it might have to go through a rigorous Development of Regional Impact study. The county, in a development review report issued in March, also found there was a "moderate probability" that an Indian burial site is located on the land and recommended that the developer conduct an archaeological survey.
Even as those crucial issues loom over the project, the city is accommodating the development team at every turn. City planners recently went so far as to create a new zoning category for Everglades Corporate Park. Called B-7, the new zoning squeezes all of the development onto the rather narrow piece of land.
The new category has been tailor-made for the development — and its wording is about as outrageous as can be found in any arcane ordinance. It states that because of the parcel's "unique locational considerations," it shouldn't have to follow the city's "development standards, setback requirements, and landscaping standards."
Why should developments in the area get such special treatment? The ordinance explains that because there aren't people living nearby, only Everglades land, "such requirements are less important."
Right. What's going to live by it? A cherished and unique ecosystem of flora and wildlife? Screw it and them.
The ordinance goes so far as to say that the location "justifies landscaping standards which are suited to compact and urban office park" requirements.
So in the eyes of the derelict City of Sunrise, building a giant development on the Everglades is the same as building something in a crowded city.
The commission voted on January 22 to create the B-7 category, but it has yet to officially apply it to the Everglades Corporate Park. A vote cast by the City Commission this past November 25 to start that process, however, passed by a 4-1 vote. The only nay vote was cast by Commissioner Sheila Alu, who appears to be the only person in City Hall who opposes the project.
It wasn't the first time Alu had voiced opposition to the project. Remember the county's warning to the developer that it might need to have an environmental Development of Regional Impact study done because of its massive size? Well, the city tried to bypass that with an amendment to designate the Everglades Corporate Park land as "suitable for more intense office use" than previously allowed. The intention was to allow the development to sidestep the state's scrutiny.
The amendment came before the commission on May 13.
"I don't think I've ever been more opposed to anything in my eight years being on this commission," Alu said on the dais. "As you can see how close this area is to the Everglades, the only thing that buffers it is the C-13 canal... I am going to do everything in my power to fight any negative impact that this development could possibly have on the ecosystem."
She tabled the item, and the amendment has yet to be returned to the commission.
On June 27, just six weeks after Alu's sharp rebuke, the development's lobbyist, Dennis Mele, threw a fundraiser for Deputy Mayor Roger Wishner at Ruden McClosky's downtown Fort Lauderdale offices.
When asked how much Ruden McClosky raised for him, Wishner said, "I have no clue."
A look at county records indicates his campaign received more than $12,200 on that date, including contributions from Sawgrass Investments and the project's engineer, Rhon Ernest-Jones. The sum also includes money coming that day from other Ruden McClosky clients with interests in the city, including sports mogul H. Wayne Huizenga and prominent builder Terry Stiles.
On top of that, Ruden McClosky donated another $1,750 before the fundraiser, bringing the law firm's total raised for Wishner to nearly $15,000.
Ruden McClosky also recently held a similar soiree for Commissioner Don Rosen, who has yet to report the totals. He'd already received $2,000 from interests in the development, including a $500 maximum contribution from Sawgrass Investors and $1,500 from Ruden McClosky.
The money flooding into the Wishner and Rosen campaigns could be key to the project's viability. With Alu, those two commissioners form a powerful triumvirate on the board. Because outgoing Mayor Steven Feren and Commissioner Joey Scuotto have been little more than pawns for development, snaring the support of Wishner or Rosen would ensure that Everglades Corporate Park gets the votes it needs.
Wishner, however, said the money would not influence him.
"How much money someone gives me is irrelevant," Wishner told me. "I'm going to ask them for certain things on this development, and if they don't provide them, then the approval process is going to be more difficult.
"I think elected officials should be given some credit," he continued. "You can't find any improper connection whatsoever. If they were getting through the process without any obstacles or questions being raised, then you can do that. But this project isn't getting any special treatment whatsoever."
I brought up the special zoning status — which Wishner supported with his November 25 vote — as an example that it was, indeed, getting special treatment. He pointed out that he initially had seconded Alu's motion to table the amendment and delay the vote. "When I saw my votes for the table weren't there, what is a vote against it going to accomplish?" the deputy mayor asked rhetorically. "I will continue to hold up this development until Commissioner Alu's concerns are satisfied. I will not support this if my issues aren't resolved or Alu's issues aren't resolved. I am not going to give this development any special treatment."
We'll make sure to hold Wishner to those promises.
Ernest-Jones refused to comment for this column, and repeated phone calls to City Manager Bruce Moeller and City Planner Mark Lubelski went unreturned. The refusal to comment harks back to the recently ended reign of famously secretive and autocratic former Sunrise City Manager Pat Salerno. Perhaps things haven't changed much with the much-ballyhooed new regime.
Of course, if I were involved in such an attempt to build a giant "corporate park" on the Everglades, I probably wouldn't want to talk about it either.
The good news is, there is still time to kill, or at least minimize, the vile project. Removing the ridiculous B-7 zoning status would be a start. Making sure it goes through the Development of Regional Impact process is another. And then there is the wild card: The chance that there might be an Indian burial ground on the site.
Though the county instructed the developer to conduct a survey, it hasn't yet done so. Likely another detail it wants to forget. If any relics or bones are found, the project will be at least temporarily stopped in its tracks.
We can only hope.