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Fla. Developer Has 800,000 Acres and Political Clout

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Fla. Developer Has 800,000 Acres and Political Clout

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Fla. Developer Has 800,000 Acres and Political Clout

Fla. Developer Has 800,000 Acres and Political Clout

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/9852652/9877735" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The second in a three-part series.

Oystermen head out for a day of harvesting on Florida's Apalachicola Bay. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen, NPR

Oystermen head out for a day of harvesting on Florida's Apalachicola Bay.

Greg Allen, NPR

Oyster boats ready to go out for a day on Apalachicola Bay. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen, NPR

Oyster boats ready to go out for a day on Apalachicola Bay.

Greg Allen, NPR

Harvesting and processing oysters is an important part of Franklin County's seafood industry. This pile of oyster shells sits outside of Leavin's Seafood, an oyster-processing company in Apalachicola, Fla. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen, NPR

Harvesting and processing oysters is an important part of Franklin County's seafood industry. This pile of oyster shells sits outside of Leavin's Seafood, an oyster-processing company in Apalachicola, Fla.

Greg Allen, NPR

Fish at Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola. Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the United States. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen, NPR

Fish at Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola. Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the United States.

Greg Allen, NPR

About 10 years ago, Florida's largest landowner decided to switch from a timber company to a developer — and use its land for people, not trees. The St. Joe Co. now wants to develop much of the hundreds of thousands of acres it owns in the Florida panhandle.

And the company has more than a plan — it has political clout.

One area slated for development is on the Apalachicola Bay, which sits in the center of one of the last unspoiled parts of the Florida coastline. The bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the world, yielding fish, shrimp and world-class oysters.

But many in coastal Franklin County say the quality of the water in the bay is declining. They blame development.

"Well, if you've got all these jobs going up and down here with the concrete, asphalt and all the other stuff — that runs right into our bay. And that stuff kills," says Billy Dalton, who lives and works on the bay. "All that runoff's going to kill the oysters, it's going to kill the grass, it's going to run the fish out."

Well over half of the land that's privately held in Franklin County is owned by the St. Joe Co. It's mostly pine forests, but it also includes 20 miles of coastline, and St. Joe has plans for much of it.

Over the last few years, the company helped the county rewrite its comprehensive land-use plan — something everyone agrees was overdue. Part of the discussions included St. Joe's plans for SummerCamp, a 499-house development on an unspoiled stretch of beach in Franklin County.

St. Joe got approval for SummerCamp, even though the development went through some changes. One of the people with hard feelings about the development was Don Ashley, a wealthy Franklin County resident who lives in a restored fishing lodge not far from SummerCamp.

"This is certainly intensive for us in the panhandle of Florida when you put 499 homes right on the Gulf," he says. "We wanted to make sure that there were better planning guidelines in the future for this type of intensive development."

When the new county plan was completed, it gave tentative approval not just to SummerCamp, but also to four additional St. Joe projects. That left Ashley and others in Franklin County feeling betrayed. Ashley has gone to court to try to force the St. Joe Co. to keep promises he says it made to the community.

St. Joe has opponents, but in Florida's panhandle, it also has many allies. In part, that's because development means jobs, new residents and an expanding tax base for for local governments.

St. Joe also is good to its friends. A review of political contributions over the past decade shows the company has been generous with its support, contributing more than $750,000 to the state Republican Party alone.

The company has nearly a dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee and has cultivated close ties with a succession of administrations from Lawton Chiles to Jeb Bush. In 1997, St. Joe even bought an interest in a real-estate company in which Jeb Bush had been a partner. Some former aides of Jeb Bush are now with St. Joe.

St. Joe Vice President Jerry Ray makes no apologies about the company's political ties.

"Yes, we have a lot of well-connected people," he says. "And they've been charged with taking a leadership role and moving this state to a new level on the development side, but just as importantly on the environmental side."

For decades, when St. Joe was a paper company that did little with its land but grow pine trees, it was sometimes resented for stifling growth in rural counties. Now that it's developing its land, people in Franklin County have another concern — that it will bring too much growth, too fast, destroying the area's seafood industry and the community's unique character.

In rural counties across Florida's panhandle, governments are weighing a series of developments: beach resorts, entertainment complexes, even a new airport in which St. Joe has an interest.

Along with its 800,000 acres of land, the St. Joe Co. has time. Political opponents come and go, but land, the lure of Florida and the demand for housing are constants on which St. Joe is banking its future.

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