Dennis Mele: A One-Man Environmental Scourge

Tonight, Dennis Mele, the lobbyist everyone seems to hate, will again be the object of scorn. When people see Mele come into their town they might as well be looking at swarm of locusts -- bad things are going to happen to their land.

Don't worry about Mele though, he's got to be used to it. He's been in many rooms packed with a crowd of angry and emotional residents who'd like to ring his neck for trying to ruin their neighborhoods. He's not worried about those people. Mele, who works for the heavily political Ruden McClosky firm, is only worried about the handful of people sitting on the dais, the politicians whom he has tried to convince, with both words and cold cash, to support whatever perceived evil project he's backing.  

There arguably has been no single man who has done more to try to pave over green space in South Florida than Mele during the past decade.He pushes for oversized developments (the Davie Commons is an example) at a breakneck speed. The man seems to be on a one-man jihad against the environment, advocating for development on wetlands, parks, mobile homes, neighborhood golf courses, you name it.

Nothing is sacred is Mele land. You think you've seen a bad guy? You ain't never seen a bad guy like this.

He is, of course, only doing his job. Mele makes big money and for every hated project he represents, there's a developer behind him. And he gives big money away in the form of campaign contributions. He and his firm raise huge amounts of money for politicians, who are routinely showered with $500 checks during fundraisers at Ruden McClosky's well-appointed offices in downtown Fort Lauderdale. To be fair, he's also meticulous about his business, knows how to spin like a top, and is familiar with the projects he backs inside and out.

Tonight Mele, a former Coconut Creek city manager, will again be in one of those packed rooms full of people who hate what he stands for. He'll be at Sunrise City Hall trying to push through a crucial rezoning for the massive Everglades Corporate Park on the western side of the Sawgrass Expressway -- a place where there was meant to be no development at all.

To get to where he is today, Mele has already raised good money for Mayor Roger Wishner, Commissioner Don Rosen, and Commissioner Larry Sofield (who earlier this year accepted at least $1,500 from Ruden McClosky).

The question: Will the pressure be enough for the politicians to abandon Mele and the project? It comes right at election time and you can believe that Wishner, with a strong challenger in Michael Ryan vying for his job, is nervous.

If the rezoning is defeated, it changes things dramatically and will make it much more difficult for the developers to build. It would also give the city some leverage in any land swap or land purchase deal. Don't make a mistake: Tonight is huge.

But rest assured that whatever happens with that piece of Everglades property, Mele will continue his jihad on South Florida's environment. He's paid big money to do it, after all.

Right now, he's representing several golf course developments, including Broken Woods Country Club in Coral Springs, the Glades course at Colony West in Tamarac, and the Deerfield Country Club. All of them are bitterly opposed by residents.

Mele's client lost his bid in Tamarac last month, perhaps because the last time they approved golf club developments, the developer wound up charged with bribery (Bruce Chait) and it looks like a commissioner or two there might be in trouble as well. That may be why the commissioners finally actually seemed to listen to the residents who gave emotional pleas for them to save the open space.  

When he's not trying to turn golf courses into townhouses he's representing other minor outrages. The Commons in Davie is another one, the giant 150-acre commercial, hotel, and office project that residents have rallied against. He's worked on that one with Ron Book and Bill Laystrom.

In 2008, he was the point man for the dreaded Cocomar Plaza project in Coconut Creek that would have paved over 43 acres of trees and wetland to build a Lowes and a Kohl department store. The people really hated that one. The Palm Beach Environmental Coalition wrote up a mock restraining order against Mele. "Respondent Dennis Mele ... [is] hereby restrained and enjoined from: The greater Everglades bioregion, including but not limited to the parcel of land between Lyons and Banks Road in Coconut Creek and Margate."

A group of residents formed the Concerned Citizens of Coconut Creek to fight it. They filed a lawsuit and won. The project died.

He fought to turn a 184-unit mobile home park in Coconut Creek called Hillsboro Palms into a 192,000 square-foot shopping center, forcing senior citizens out of their affordable homes.

"I'm terribly hurt," 77-year-old Theresa Dumas told the Sun-Sentinel in 2008. "You live somewhere for 20 years and then they say you've got to leave. It's heartbreaking, that's all I can tell you."

In 2007, Mele successfully fought to build a residential and commercial development called "Trotters Chase" on what had been a horse farm in rural Davie that was bitterly opposed by residents. 

In Miramar, he persuaded the commission to rezone the Eagle Woods Golf Course into a dense housing development and warehouse. So far nothing has been built due to the economy.

He was the point man for the ill-advised effort to build a huge housing development on the Waldrep Dairy Farm, the last working dairy farm in Broward County. Residents have railed against the project on a number of points and the developer, TOUSA, went bankrupt. You can read more about that here.

There's much much more, but you get the picture. Everywhere Mele goes, trouble ensues. There's more tonight in the showdown in Sunrise. We'll just have to wait and see who wins, the lobbyist or the people.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman