Trying to find out what's going on in the Town of Jupiter's quest to purchase land owned by Business Development Board of Palm Beach County CEO Kelly Smallridge's husband, Mark Smallridge, is like playing Whac-A-Mole: Nail down the answer to one question and another pops up to take its place.
The response to raising the questions? Like taking a stick to a hornet's nest.
The Town wants to use Mark Smallridge's property for road construction related to Hawkeye Jupiter, a massive new commercial development adjoining the Town's historic, black Limestone Creek neighborhood, including at least 250,000 square feet for bioscience. Kelly Smallridge and the Business Development Board have pushed bioscience development in Northern Palm Beach for almost a decade, in order to justify the use of several hundred million dollars of public funds to lure the Scripps Research Institute to the area. It's the trickle-down theory of Scripps, now trickling down to Mark Smallridge.
First feedback we got on our prior story on this topic was a whining letter from Mark Smallridge's attorney, Greg Cohen, who told us (1) we've got the numbers all wrong, (2) Smallridge isn't the one making money on the deal, (3) there's nothing illegal if he does, and besides, (4) Smallridge has a serious illness.
We are sorry to hear he's ill. Seriously. But we never said anyone was breaking the law, we grant that our original estimate of his profit was only an estimate, and we're finding the numbers more elusive than ever.
Having digested Cohen's missive, we then found ourselves slammed in the readers' comments of the prior piece by "kurtstetson4," who purported to be "a developer." While he appeared to have followed the Jupiter land purchase proposal closely, his comments were riddled with misrepresentations, obfuscation, irrelevancy, and ad hominem.
Then the Palm Beach Post picked up on our story. Among other things, it quoted Smallridge attorney Cohen and Jupiter Town Manager Andrew Lukasik to the effect that Mark Smallridge had opposed construction of the Hawkeye road.
Perhaps. But Cohen's remarks at Palm Beach County Commission hearings about the road proposal (which has been fiercely opposed by Limestone Creek residents) were equivocal, and concerned compensation as much as construction. On April 17 and July 15, Cohen raised the specter of lawsuits against the county for "takings" and worried aloud about whether the county had sufficient funds for the road project. At the May 15 meeting, he asked the county to consider alternative routes.
Kelly Smallridge's statements to the Post on the bioscience road land deal came down to this: "Nothing to see here. Move along." If she and her many supporters weren't so incorrigibly adamant on the point -- and less opaque -- we'd have an easier time believing it.
This could all be cleared up if someone -- either Smallridge or the developer with an option on the Smallridge property or the Town of Jupiter -- would come clean. No one has, based on information developed by a team of citizen researchers whose public face is FAU student Britni Hiatt, a senior majoring in women's studies at the school's Jupiter campus.
Town of Jupiter officials declined to comply with Hiatt's public records request for a copy of the purchase agreement, saying that only a draft version was ready. So the town signed off on the purchase without finalizing the details? Money first, procedure later: Is that how business is normally done? Official business?
And it appears town officials are confused as to who controls the land and under what circumstances. (Never mind that county officials have refused to sign off on the road project.) Specifically:
-- Both the town's December 13 purchase study and audio of the town council meeting of December 18 describe options on the Smallridge parcels as held by FLF Holdings. The Post story says they're held by Island Way Land Holdings. The two LLCs are closely intertwined but still, legally distinct entities.
-- In a December 27 email to Hiatt, Town Manager Lukasik stated that closing on the land deal is set for "after the first of the year." But the audio of the December 18 Town Council meeting puts the expiration date of the LLCs' options -- whichever LLC has the options -- at the end of the year. So: Have the options been extended? Can the deal close with the LLC if the options have expired?
And, of course, with the options agreements still undisclosed, no one can know exactly how much Mark Smallridge stands to make on the deal. The Hiatt team's latest study shows that the spread between his purchase price and the $600K the town is offering for the land is several hundred thousand dollars.
We fully expect to hear more from Smallridge's supporters. And we grant them this: Based on the public record, it is difficult to argue that Mark Smallridge traded on inside knowledge. The St. Pete Times puts the germination date of the county's bioscience obsession (which set in motion the events that lead to the interest in Smallridge's property) as June and July of 2003, after Smallridge bought his parcels. OK: That's the public record.
But that sort of bald-faced corruption is not the point. The point is this: As the Limestone Creek bioscience land deal demonstrates, there exists in Palm Beach County an elite circle of individuals who have access and money to turn public effort into private profit. Maybe that's just the way the world works. The point, however, is to change it.
P.S. One of the most offensive aspects of the whole Limestone Creek affair is the insistence of high public officials like Karen Marcus, business front groups like the Island Way Advocacy Coalition, and hired flacks like the O'Donnell Agency that Kennedy Estates/Baker Park, where the Smallridge properties are located, is not part of Limestone Creek, whose historic status demands a certain level of respect -- or at least a show of respect.
As we've written before (and according to Lynn Drake, archives and research specialist at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum), "socially, culturally, historically, and by blood relation, the two neighborhoods are one and consider themselves so."
Bad enough that the local powers-that-be see fit to use the residents of Kennedy Estates like pawns in a game of political and economic chess, screwing with the character of their neighborhood in order to grease the path of private interests. But to try to rob them of their very identity is an offense of the lowest sort. Money knows no decency.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.