Is Florida Just One New Development Away From Environmental Ruin?
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The monumental stone signs and freshly paved entry road appear to lead to nothing but wide-open, semitropical countryside. But a second look reveals a skyline of sorts on the horizon, and it's topped by a beige-and-brown, sharply arched roof. That turns out to be a 100-foot-tall church known as the Oratory, which sits at the core of downtown Ave Maria, Fla.
The new town is situated in a semi-agricultural part of Collier County, 30 miles northeast as the gull flies from the beaches of Naples -- the state's southwesternmost resort area. But with its narrow, curving streets, cobblestones, quaint architecture, fresh stucco and paint, and (on a recent Tuesday afternoon) almost total absence of any human presence, Ave Maria appears to be a village in some unidentifiable European nation that has just endured an all-out attack by an enemy armed only with neutron bombs and power washers.
Facing the Oratory is the gleaming Ave Maria University, and clustered around the town center are streets lined by densely packed houses. Stubs of yet-to-be-built streets lead off in all directions, but most of the 8 square miles owned by the town remain open land.
Ave Maria is the creation of Domino's Pizza tycoon and prominent conservative Catholic Tom Monaghan, who teamed up with the Barron Collier Co. (the latter founded in the 1920s by the region's original big-time developer). In addition to the university, the town plan calls for 11,000 residences of various sizes, 690,000 square feet of retail space, 400 hotel rooms, two schools and two golf courses.
Much of the controversy surrounding Ave Maria has focused on the question of how it can simultaneously be a Catholic enclave and a governmental unit. But Ave Maria is also the most recent and most striking incarnation of south Florida's most persistent problem: Overdevelopment.
Agribusiness, led by Big Sugar, once posed the greatest threat to south Florida's ecosystems. The long struggle to save the Everglades from agricultural and urban growth on the state's southeast coast -- a struggle that is far from over -- has been thoroughly documented by Michael Grunwald in his 2006 book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.
Now the chief threat to lower Florida's remaining natural lands comes from residential developments like Ave Maria and the tentacles of transportation and commerce that feed them. As Grunwald and others have shown, local governments and developers in southwest Florida are creating new environmental crises faster than the past mistakes made on the other side of the state can be corrected.
Historian Gary Mormino of the University of South Florida up the west coast in St. Petersburg, looks at the low-lying, automobile- and air-conditioning-dependent peninsula where he lives and sees a state that's extremely vulnerable to coming climatic changes and energy shortages: "Florida is a kind of brave new world in the 21st century. And we haven't arrived very well prepared."
What's more, in his 2005 social history of modern Florida, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, Mormino concluded that "the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow." If he's right, we'd better pay closer attention to the paving and building that's going on down at our continent's soggy tail end.
Six million years ago, South Florida was covered by a shallow sea. Then the state's original land-developers -- microscopic marine organisms -- went to work. Their calcium-rich remains gradually built up a solid limestone floor, and large parts of that floor rose into the sunshine from time to time as sea levels fluctuated over the past 100,000 years.