Coconut Creek suburbanites team with neo-hippies to fight Lowe's

Brian Sprinkle dismounts from a blue ten-speed with a warm smile on his face. The 24-year-old environmental activist has just biked 15 miles, from Fort Lauderdale to Coconut Creek, on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon. Streaks of sweat on a green T-shirt serve as the only evidence of his arduous journey.

Sprinkle describes himself as an anarchist who embraces communal living. His environmental battles, he says, are about standing up to capitalism. He lives rent-free with friends and sifts through Dumpsters for vegetarian food. Occasionally, he'll take an odd job for cash.

The street that Sprinkle stands on is lined with tidy $300,000 homes. The people who live here might regard the scruffy-looking young man with suspicion because, for one thing, shampoo hasn't doused his chin-length oily hair in quite some time. "I'm just into being natural, not trying to cover my natural scent," Sprinkle explains.

Standing next to Sprinkle is a tastefully groomed grandmother of three named Tami Freeman — his partner for the day. She's dressed in a sleeveless white polo shirt, white Bermudas, and leather flip-flops. Her neatly trimmed, strawberry-blond bob is pulled back with a scrunchy, and sunglasses rest on her head. She's a 49-year-old supply purchaser for a local homebuilder. And today, she has offered to walk door to door with Sprinkle to formally introduce him to her neighbors.

The young radical and the grandmother have something in common: They're both adamantly opposed to a construction project planned for the land across the canal from Freeman's home. Jacksonville-based Regency Centers Corp. wants to pave most of the 42-acre green space, home to wading birds and virgin hardwood hammocks. The bulldozing would make way for Cocomar Plaza, featuring retailers such as Lowe's home improvement center and Kohl's department store.

The young anarchist is affiliated with Earth First! , a group that bills itself as the antithesis of all those "namby-pamby" environmental groups. Earth First! members aren't shy about trespassing, unfolding protest banners from rooftops, or chaining themselves to construction equipment. Sprinkle himself recently caught a trespassing charge when he refused to vacate a site near the Everglades where Florida Power & Light plans to erect a power plant; he expects to get slapped with a sentence of community service.

It's rare for Earth First! to find such eager cohorts in its fights against development. But the neighbors in Coconut Creek are piping mad about the strip mall. Now, middle-aged professionals with conservative haircuts are protesting alongside unkempt activists who are young enough to be their kids.

The parcel destined to become Cocomar Plaza, at the northwest corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Lyons Road, encompasses one of the few mixed hardwood hammocks left in Broward County, according to a map by the county environmental protection department. Such hammocks act as nesting sites for endangered wood storks and other birds. As Broward approaches build-out, the remaining untouched land is increasingly valuable to both developers and residents, not to mention wildlife.

Sprinkle got involved in the Coconut Creek project in July. He was riding his bike along Atlantic Boulevard when he spotted a public notice on the grass where Kohl's would rise. He gathered a bunch of like-minded activists to attend a city meeting. "We thought this would be our fight," Sprinkle remembers. "Usually people in neighborhoods are apathetic."

The Earth First! crew instead discovered an organized opposition. The neighbors have an obvious economic and lifestyle stake in the debate: They worry that the big box stores will hurt property values and bring traffic. The suburbanites are also tapping their inner nature-loving hippies.

Despite the alliance, Coconut Creek city commissioners voted unanimously September 25 to rezone the parcel to suit the developer's plans. Mayor Becky Tooley tells New Times that she felt the zoning change was in the best interest of the residents. "If we turned it down," she says, "the developer could put anything he wanted on it."

The residents are outraged. "We know that they failed us, turned their backs on us, when they're supposed to represent us," says Al Martinez, whose townhome backs up to the parcel. Neither the neighbors nor the Earth First!ers are ready to back down. Residents have lawyered up in the hopes of at least stalling construction. And they aspire to get the entire City Commission voted out of office.

The neighbors will hold rummage sales to raise funds for the legal tussle while Earth First!ers mobilize the troops. And, when possible, they'll work simultaneously, like Sprinkle and Freeman did on a recent Saturday.

At the start of their canvassing, Freeman invites Sprinkle into her cool four-bedroom home to view the virgin wetland visible from her backyard. They venture to the water's edge. "We bought this home 12 years ago because of the privacy and the greenery," Freeman says. "At least I got them to put in a wall to hide us from the parking lot."

A long-necked white ibis flies the length of the canal, followed by a gray wading bird. Sprinkle looks Freeman in the eye: "Don't worry about that — you won't even need a wall." He's that confident that he and fellow activists will be able to stop the development. Sprinkle is prepared to lie down before bulldozers, if necessary, to preserve the wetlands and wildlife beyond Freeman's backyard.

They grab chilled bottles of Zephyrhills water from Freeman's fridge before hitting the pavement. Sprinkle carries a stack of fliers with information about Earth First!, the proposed retail project, and specific actions the neighbors can take — such as writing state senators. Freeman does most of the talking.

The first neighbor to open the door promises half-heartedly to attend an upcoming protest. "You know they passed the zoning change," Freeman says.

"Of course," the neighbor answers. "It's money in the coffer."

More doors open. More neighbors pledge support. Linda Velazquez is surprised to learn that the battle rages on. "It should be a preserve with all the wildlife out there. That's the reason why my parents bought this place; the real estate agent said it was a preserve," she tells Freeman. Velazquez inherited the home two years ago. She offers an oversized wood curio cabinet for the garage sale; the curio doesn't fit with her modern décor anyhow.

At one of the last homes on the day's agenda, the owners invite the canvassers inside. Ken and Brenda Knauss both work in real estate, and they have been actively protesting the proposed development. The couple bought their home 21 years ago, figuring that perhaps their wild, seemingly endless backyard would eventually be replaced with a strip mall. But as the years wore on, the Knausses grew accustomed to their jungle view.

They stand next to their pool, under a canopy screen, just 30 feet from the dense foliage beyond a short fence. "We're going to have a perfect view of Atlantic Boulevard," Ken says, shaking his head. "The noise is going to be unbelievable."

Brenda chimes in: "What would happen if we had to sell for some reason? No one would buy this place with the construction going on."

The Knausses, not surprisingly, are no longer Lowe's customers. When it came time to replace their water heater a few days ago, they drove eight miles to the Home Depot on Wiles Road and State Road 7. It's about the same distance to the Lowe's on Turtle Creek Drive, in Coral Springs, but the Knausses have vowed to never walk into that chain again. Not even to compare prices.

Raindrops start to break on the canopy screen above, so the group retreats indoors to a billiard room decorated with Green Bay Packers memorabilia. The Knausses recount how they recently relocated a lost turtle to the canal behind the Freeman home. They talk about the fox that saunters by at the same time each day. They fear that all those animals will become roadkill.

That's why they can't let the first shovel hit the ground. And that's why Sprinkle might not be the only one blocking bulldozers come construction day.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie