Florida’s land rush still going strong

Few states—Arizona comes to mind—are as closely identified with land speculation as Florida. Indeed, Carl Hiaasen has made a prodigious career out of writing a slew of books about a rogue’s gallery of grifters who view the state’s natural resources as theirs to be plundered. Casual readers who think these fast-buck artists and their pitiless machinations are a product of Hiaasen’s feverish imagination should remember that his day job, until a couple of years ago, was as an investigative reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald. As Hiaasen himself has observed, Floridians read his books “more as documentary than fiction.”

So it is in Citrus County, some 60 miles north of Tampa on U.S. 19. Snugged up against the Gulf of Mexico, much of the county is defined by wildlife management areas and state forests. Ten miles north of the junction with U.S. 98 you can make a left turn onto West Ozello Trail, which, naturally enough, will lead you to the small, unincorporated hamlet of Ozello. Make a jog here and a jog there along narrow, winding roads that hopscotch from one key to another and you’ll end up on Fishcreek Point, your route dead-ending at a battered parking lot and an old boat ramp.

Except for the way you came in, you are now surrounded on all sides by the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve and the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a rich off-shore area of marshes, mud flats, oyster bars, mangrove islands and seagrass beds, as well as the only wildlife refuge dedicated to the protection of the West Indian manatee. The land you are standing on averages two to three feet above sea level. There are perhaps 400 people living along the few roads, plus a church, a couple of restaurants, a bait shop—just the place for an RV park and glampground, you’ll think to yourself.

Or at least that’s what Jennefer and Dimitri Magradze would like their new neighbors to think. Having bought 16 acres at road’s end two years ago, they’ve spent the last nine months seeking county approval for what they maintain will be an eco-tourism business that will give the somnolent area an economic shot in the arm. Maybe three-dozen RV sites plus a couple of dozen glamping “tents” on platforms, a tiki hut, pavilion, inground swimming pool and pool house, a score of boat slips—or at least that was their opening salvo. It convinced the local Chamber of Commerce, which weighed in with its endorsement, but the rest of the community? Not so much.

There’s the roads, scarcely 16 feet wide and without shoulders and the scary thought of weekend adventurers trying to navigate them in 45-foot motorhomes towing a car or boat trailer. There’s the all-encompassing FEMA flood zone and an average of twice-a-year flooding, and the question of how those 400 or so residents—never mind the itinerant guests— will be able to escape an oncoming hurricane when a single jack-knifed fifth-wheel can block the only way out. There’s the question of what’s going to happen to all the human waste created by 100 or 150 campers, sitting in a possibly submerged cesspool, and the noise that those same campers will be making each evening, and the light pollution that will dispel a formerly stygian night.

Most of all, there’s the fact that the property the Magradzes bought is zoned as a coastal and lakes residential district and would need to be rezoned to allow an RV park. For many of their neighbors, that’s really all that needs to be said. “It’s not complicated,” wrote one local resident to the county planning and development commission. “They knowingly bought coastal swamp land, on a pristine nature space, that is flood prone, has limited access, is zoned for residential use only—and that is what they got!

Aside from the question of how such a glampground could be an economic driver in a substantially residential area, there’s a niggling belief that the whole “eco-tourism” premise is just a bit, well, pretentious. Or even duplicitous. The Magradzes, after all, lived on their property in a fifth-wheel for some time before the locals ratted them out to the health department, their sewer connected to a decades-old cesspool; the fifth-wheel was hauled off. Then they got cited in March by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for illegally cutting down more than a thousand square feet of mangroves, which the department deemed a “significant non-compliance” with state regulations. And all along they’ve been selling access to their boat ramp, in apparent violation of rules restricting commercial operations in a residential neighborhood.

It is all, say their opponents, indicative of a pattern of noncompliance with existing regulations and hardly indicative of an ecologically sensitive approach to tourism. It’s also so Florida.

Because, let’s face it, Fishcreek Point is hardly an unspoiled paradise. Part of the Magradzes’ property is an island, created some fifty years ago when a former owner dredged a channel through the marsh, apparently without any official sanction. The area around the boat ramp was at one time an RV campground, as evidenced by a few remaining pedestals and hydrants—but precisely how (or even if) it was permitted is lost to history, the county confessing its records don’t go back that far. A couple of concrete pads and a couple of ramshackle sheds are all that remain. That, and some 200 tires and more than a thousand beer bottles that Jennefer Magradze says the couple has already hauled out. Fishcreek Point, in other words, was for decades a good ol’ boys’ fishing hole and hangout, a remote corner of a Florida bayou where a lot of rules didn’t apply.

For the Magradzes’ supporters, and of course there are some, their proposed Fishcreek Glampground and Ramp will only resume an interrupted use of the property. It will mean cleaning up a dumping ground and bringing in tourists who will spend at least some money that isn’t being spent now. And their enthusiasm has been only whetted by the eye candy prepared by the Magradzes, of paved drives and manicured grounds and South African luxury “tents.” Moreover, in an effort to demonstrate their sensitivity to local concerns, the couple has repeatedly trimmed away pieces of the original proposal: gone now are the tiki hut and pavilion, the 21 boat slips have been cut back to three or maybe one, the number of RV sites and glamping tents reduced to 32 and 16, respectively.

Yet for all that, the Magradzes haven’t grappled with the basic issue: that they’re attempting to stick a commercial operation into the middle of a residential and environmentally fragile community. Literally scores—perhaps hundreds— of letters have flooded county offices in opposition to their plans. Many come from people who own RVs of their own, and even one who owned a Maine campground for 23 years, all saying the same thing: bad idea. Terrible idea. Quite possibly an enormously stupid idea.

The Citrus County Planning and Development Commission agreed with those views in February, rejecting the Magradzes rezoning application by a vote of 5-2. They did it again this past week, this time even more decisively, voting 6-1 to reject an attempt to “lessen the scope of the project.” But now the matter goes to the county commissioners, who are scheduled to decide June 20 whether to accept the planning and development commission’s judgment. Early indications are that they may be inclined to do so.

Then again, this is Florida. And Carl Hiaasen hasn’t made a literary career out of writing about reasonable people being caretakers of Florida’s delicately balanced environment. . . .

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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