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Earl Johns stands in the way of a city's big plans.
Earl Johns stands in the way of a city's big plans.
Colby Katz

Old McTomato Had a Farm

Earl Johns has been known to show up in overalls at the Coconut Creek government complex to distribute avocados and mangoes to city officials. They smile and accept the fruit from the 87-year-old, fourth-generation South Florida farmer. Behind their smiles, though, they're kinda wishin' Earl Johns would just disappear.

It's nothing personal. Johns just happens to have inherited, along with his three sisters who have since died, 160 acres right smack in the middle of their 430-acre downtown project. And although the Johns family has recently formed a limited partnership to manage that land (with Earl Johns not, legally speaking, a key player), knowledgeable townspeople talk privately about who really wears the pants in the Johns family. That would be Earl Johns. Some insiders say that, without the blessing of the family patriarch, the deal will never move forward.

No one, including antsy city officials, can say whether Johns will have a change of heart, but right now, he's not interested in sacrificing any of his family's farmland, particularly for the development of a downtown. The 19 contiguous Johns family properties, which serve as a giant tomato patch, are worth more than $15 million — about twice what they were worth two years ago.


Earl Johns

"We could have sold it a million times, but we like to see the plants grow," Johns said on a recent Tuesday. After smoking for 40 years, his words fall out between slow breaths, as if taken through a bar straw. Johns has some health issues, all right. He's got a catheter in his lungs, and he's waiting anxiously for results from a prostate biopsy.

But sitting at his kitchen table in Coconut Creek, Johns is animated and social. A self-proclaimed "cracker," Johns' eyes flash when he talks about his family's history and the abiding need for farmland. To others, that property may seem a flat, undeveloped eyesore, surrounded by buildings, but those plump red tomatoes out there make Johns proud.

In 2002, Coconut Creek city planners proposed that the industrial and agricultural land bordered by Lyons Road, Wiles Road, Sample Road, and State Road 7 should be put to better use. They did studies, held meetings, and rezoned the city's core to allow for a mixed-used regional activity center.

The project, first dubbed Mainstreet Coconut Creek but later renamed Creek Commons, included a vision for a sustainable downtown that would be certified "green," meaning, among other things, that building materials would be environmentally friendly, construction would be energy-efficient, and structures would meet advanced criteria for indoor environmental quality. It would be the first project of its kind in Florida, and its design standards have already received an Award of Excellence from the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association.

City officials planned for Creek Commons to be a place for locals to "do a little shopping, picnic in the park, and wrap up the afternoon by sitting at a sidewalk café, sipping a cappuccino and watching the world stroll by," according to a news release.

They're also expecting the downtown — which already includes poker and slot machines at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek — to attract tourists. Some say the project might give Coconut Creek, a growing, mostly white city of 50,000, a reason to exist beyond its important role as "butterfly capital of the world" (the city is the home of the Butterfly World theme park).

Coconut Creek's director of development services, Sheila Rose, said that acquiring the land through eminent domain was briefly discussed, but Jeb Bush stripped Florida cities of that power earlier this year. Still, Rose said she was excited to see the project moving forward; she was under the impression last week that the Johns family and developer Bob Gorlow were making progress in negotiations to relinquish farmland for the project.

"Ideally, the city would like to see it happen as soon as possible," she said.

But can the project go forward while Earl Johns is still alive? Some city officials chuckle and answer without certainty. They just don't know.

"We're sitting on the sidelines waiting," City Manager John Kelly said. "The terms are up to the Johns family."

Neither Gorlow nor the Johns' lawyer, John Shirley, will talk about their discussions.

The Johns Family Partners LLLC is made up of four general partners, each representing an heir to the property. The partners include David Auld, Marilyn Mahoney, Neil Hainey, and Daniel Johns, who represents his father, Earl Johns (a limited partner). None of the GPs could be reached for comment.

Dixie Houston, daughter of Earl Johns and herself a limited partner, says the family does not want anyone prying into its Coconut Creek deal. (Too late, New Times explained). But the Tequesta 60-year-old is willing to voice her opinions on the project.

"I would like to see a town center there," she says. "We just got to move on. It's a shame to take the farmland away. It really is. In the winter, when everybody's starving and there's no crops out there, they'll have to grow stuff in their backyards. But that's progress. I'm not going to hold anybody back."

Part of Houston's reasoning is that South Florida is too far gone from the days of her youth in Pompano Beach. She can recall when residents participated in beard-growing contests and attended "The Bean Picker," a vegetable jamboree. It was renamed "The Golden Tornado" when Houston entered seventh grade. That's when she started to see a change. "I guess Pompano got sophisticated or something," she says.

"It's a different world," she continues. "We grew up with honesty and morals. When somebody died, everybody would go help 'em [the bereaved families]. They had clubs. Adult women had their clubs. The garden clubs. They all stuck together. That generation is dying off. That's my dad's generation. Now it's all a bunch of Yankees and strangers and thieves and nasty people. You can't even find a little handful that's left."

Earl Johns agrees with his daughter about the unfavorable changes, but he can talk all day about why the property needs to stay farmland.

"We need that land to feed people," Johns says from a seat at his kitchen table. His full head of gray hair gives way to a plump countenance, anchored by grapefruit cheeks and swimming-pool-blue eyes. Around his neck, Johns wears a gold chain with a Scorpio insignia. It's an odd accessory for a farmer, but there's no good explanation. Johns just likes it. His belly pokes out between his suspenders, which hold up a pair of baggy jeans.

"It irritates me to see land sold," he says. "The greedy builder has already done too much." As he speaks, Johns flails his right hand, which is missing two fingertips blown off by dynamite when he was 7 years old. He had been helping to clear land by exploding rocks, he says, and he remembers picking shards out of his face for a month afterward.

Johns' parents, Eva and Joseph Burtons Johns, moved to South Florida in 1918 after boll weevils decimated their cotton crop in Live Oak, a farm town in North Florida. The pioneer family heard there was money to be made in winter vegetables such as beans, peppers, and eggplant in South Florida, but upon arriving, it found the mosquitoes unbearable. The family was forced to sleep under nets and ship its cattle back to North Florida every summer. Family members lived without indoor plumbing or electricity, watched many people die from malaria, and received no hurricane warnings, Johns recalls.

In 1926, a hurricane blew the Johns' roof off, and they found shelter in a neighbor's cellar, which happened to be full of bootleg red whiskey.

"You didn't have no kind of convenience," Johns, now a multimillionaire, says. The value of the numerous properties Johns' family accumulated over the years skyrocketed, making him one of the wealthiest men in Broward County.

These days, Johns passes the time in his comfortable Coconut Creek home, which he recently had painted cream-colored with red trim. It resembles a farmhouse, and it contains all the trappings you'd expect — a mounted deer's head and a gun rack in the living room, cowboy hats strewn about, and numerous signed and framed "thank you" photos from George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Johns' office is also adorned with posters and plates depicting Marilyn Monroe.

Johns spends much of his time with a companion named Mildred, and friends drop by now and then. On Tuesday, Edward Johnson, whose grandfather was a sharecropper with Johns' father, stopped in to say hello. He's known Earl Johns since they were kids and respects the man a great deal. "Sharp as a whip," he says of Johns. A real estate man, Johnson sometimes tries to convince Johns that it's time to let go of the Coconut Creek land. It never works.

"Not in his lifetime," Johnson says of when he expects the property will be sold.

That could be a while. Later in the week, Mildred relays the message that Earl Johns does not have prostate cancer. The biopsy revealed that his urinary tract obstruction is benign.


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