One City Under God

Earlier this year, construction crews outside Naples, Fla., broke ground on a project that will transform a 5,000-acre tomato field into a self-contained town with schools, banks, grocery stores, retailers, medical facilities and over 11,000 homes.

Designed from the ground up, this planned community will have the feel of a European town, facilitating easy pedestrian and bicycle travel with its open spaces and public parks. If it sounds like a modern utopia, just wait: As an added draw, this community will also be home to the country's largest crucifix planted in the town square, a mammoth cross 65 feet tall.

Welcome to Ave Maria. Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza magnate, has invested at least $250 million to build a town based on strict Roman Catholic principles. Monaghan has teamed up with developer Barron Collier Co. to develop Ave Maria around a cathedral and the first Roman Catholic university to be built in the last 40 years. Monaghan envisions Ave Maria will encompass his conservative beliefs, and he and Barron Collier will control all of the town's commercial assets, notably the real estate.

As a religious town, Ave Maria fits into the mold created by New England cities like Plymouth, Providence and Hartford, or on the West Coast, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego (founded as Franciscan missions). A more modern comparison might be to John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community in upstate New York, which effectively legitimized polygamy. But Ave Maria offers a unique twist in the trend of privately owned planned communities. This is most decidedly not the well-heeled subdivision in the suburb next door.

Redefining the company town

The plans for Ave Maria paint a picture of a model of New Urbanism, a forward looking school of thought in architecture that emphasizes ecologically sustainable, small-scale neighborhoods within larger cities. Florida is no stranger to these developments: the nearby towns of Seaside (where The Truman Show was filmed) and the Disney-owned Celebration are both examples of planned communities in this vein.

Then again, Monaghan's ownership casts Ave Maria as something of a throwback to company towns like Pullman, Ill.: Instead of a community in which everyone is associated with the town mill or manufacturing plant, the residents of Ave Maria will be linked by Roman Catholicism in some way or another. Perhaps they will be part of Ave Maria University or attend the oratory, which is Ave Maria's "symbolic heart." At the very least, residents will belong to Monaghan's integrated community, where there is no separation between church and state.

Church and state

The plan to create a town dedicated to freedom of Christian living -- especially if it means restricting "non-Christian" activities -- have understandably raised the ire of civil liberties groups. CNN and MSNBC/Newsweek reported that the town of Ave Maria would ban the sale of pornography and birth control outright. But according to Blake Gable, vice president of Barron Collier, that's not exactly true. "We're not restricting what our retailers sell and don't sell," Gable told me in a phone interview, "but we will ask retailers to take Mr. Monaghan's beliefs into account."

For example, Gable maintained that Ave Maria would ban strip clubs. They would also forbid adult bookstores from opening, but wouldn't necessarily prohibit regular bookstores that happened to carry pornography. Still, when asked whether Barron Collier would favor a pharmacy that agreed not to sell birth control over one that did, Gable replied, "We'd go for the one that wouldn't sell, only out of respect to Mr. Monaghan and the wishes of the university."

Nicole Berner, a Planned Parenthood staff attorney, says playing favorites among companies is tantamount to restricting residents' constitutional rights to contraceptives. "It's our view that if Ave Maria is what it purports itself to be -- completely privately owned -- then the town would need to comply with the 'company town' doctrine." Berner cited the 1946 Supreme Court decision in Marsh v. Alabama, in which the court held that "ownership [of a town] does not always mean absolute dominion."

In other words, Monaghan and Barron Collier would be imposing their beliefs upon residents, since there is no difference in practice between favoring a pharmacy that agreed not to sell birth control and banning one that sold contraceptives altogether. Once Monaghan and Barron Collier open Ave Maria up to the public, the rights of citizens supersede those of the town owners. Therefore, Planned Parenthood argues that it would be impermissible for Monaghan, Barron Collier or anyone acting on behalf of the government to favor a pharmacy on such grounds. "Especially in Florida," Berner concluded, "which has a heightened right to privacy."

Defining 'wholesomeness'

While Barron Collier spokespersons claim to have been misunderstood by the media when it comes to issues of birth control and pornography, their stance on abortion is quite clear. Gable is quite certain that he can keep Planned Parenthood from establishing a clinic within the town of Ave Maria.

"I have the ability through deed restrictions," he declared, "to say that I'm not going to have a slaughterhouse in this town." When asked if Gable was equating abortion clinics to slaughterhouses, Gable fumbled, arguing that he was merely referring to standard language of Barron Collier deed agreements that proscribe the establishment of slaughterhouses. "Don't misunderstand me," Gable added, "we're not going to have industrial mills or paper manufacturers either."

Gable pictures a town that will be a "safe, wholesome community based on traditional family values." Yet those values don't seem to be shared by the majority of Americans. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll from Jan. 22 revealed that 66 percent of Americans would not overturn Roe v. Wade, a figure that is up 3 percent from a similar poll conducted last year. Berner also contended that since 98 percent of American women use birth control during their child-bearing years, Barron Collier and Monaghan's attempts to create a contraceptive-free town falls far outside of the mainstream.

Above all, Gable believes that Ave Maria is not necessarily a Catholic community. Gable stated that over 12,000 people are already interested in moving to Ave Maria, and he assured me that unmarried and same-sex couples are welcome, as are religious denominations other than Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, the criticism of planned communities like Seaside and Celebration has been that they attract affluent white families, much like the one seen on Ave Maria's website, where Barron Collier lists the estates and multifamily residences.

So while Gable and Monaghan profess Ave Maria to be open to all, the question remains how diverse a community can form around the country's tallest cross.

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