STEVE INSKEEP, host:
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If you've ever jokingly said, if you believe that, I got some real estate in Florida to sell you, then take a moment to consider a company that bought quite a lot of it. It's the largest landowner in one of the most populous states.
For many years, the St. Joe Company was a quiet paper manufacturer that grew and harvested pine trees on hundreds of thousands of acres in Florida's panhandle. That changed about 10 years ago. The company began using its land for people, not trees. St. Joe now has plans to develop much of its land in the panhandle. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the company has more than plans. It has political clout.
GREG ALLEN: Apalachicola Bay sits in the center of one of the last unspoiled parts of the Florida coastline. On a map, it's the bulge in the center of the Florida panhandle. It's one of the most productive estuaries in the world, yielding fish, shrimp, and world-class oysters. It's where Billy Dalton lives and works.
Mr. BILLY DALTON (Resident, Florida): It's a way of life that I treasure. You know, I could have been in several different places and I end up right back here, you know? Once you get the mud under your fingernails, it's hard to get out.
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ALLEN: It's just after sunrise and oystermen have already taking their boats out to the bay. The reason this is such a great place to fish and harvest oysters has to do with the quality of the water that feeds it. The Apalachicola River begins in South Georgia and runs through 100,000 acres of swamp and cypress forest. The river water is dark colored from the tannin(ph) and other nutrients that picks up on its way to the sea. But now, Billy Dalton, and many others in Franklin County, say the quality of the water in the bay is declining. They blame development.
Mr. DALTON: 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. All that runoff's going to kill the oysters, it's going to kill the grass, it's going to run the fish out. Everybody suffers, even the sports fishermen and everybody will suffer from them.
ALLEN: People in Apalachicola, Carrabelle and other fishing communities here in Franklin County have no trouble seeing the future. They just have to look a few dozen miles west, wherein the last 10 years, development has transformed one sleepy fishing towns into booming beach resorts.
David McLain is with the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
Mr. DAVID MCLAIN (Member, Franklin County Seafood Workers Association): This is Old Florida. And it's is one of the last pieces of Old Florida you'll find. We do have no ambition to be destined - we just want to keep it like it is. And so - and they can grow but just needs to grow in a sane way and not galloping and exploding.
ALLEN: But change is coming to this part of Florida's Panhandle. And Alan Pierce has the plans.
Mr. ALAN PIERCE (Alan Pierce and Associates): Here's the map that we had St. Joe produced and at times we use it for publicity sake.
ALLEN: Of the land that's privately held in Franklin County, well over half is owned by the St. Joe Company. It's mostly pine forest, 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.
After a proposal to relocate a coastal highway was turned down in the sensitive area next to the beach, Pierce said the company decided to put more houses on less land.
Mr. PIERCE: There was some hard feelings that some people felt, oh, you increased the density area. You know, you're going to increase the density there, you know, you're going to increase storm water run off. You're going to increase environmental, you know, degradation because you are putting more houses in that area. And we said, look, the environmental standards are the same, so since we're meeting the thresholds we'd set, it didn't really matter to us whether you had more or less houses. You're meeting the same standards.
ALLEN: One of the people with hard feelings was Don Ashley, a wealthy Franklin County resident who lives in a restored fishing lodge not far from SummerCamp. He drives his SUV past the beach area where construction is already underway.
Mr. DON ASHLEY (Resident, Franklin County, Florida): This is certainly intensive for us in the panhandle of Florida when you put 499 homes right on the Gulf. We wanted to make sure that there were better planning guidelines in the future for this type of intensive development.
ALLEN: But 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 Don Ashley and others in Franklin County feeling betrayed. Ashley has gone to court to try to force the St. Joe Company to keep promises he says it made to the community.
Mr. ASHLEY: Somewhere in that corporate structure seems to be this idea that you only give up what you have to give up to get the development approved.
ALLEN: St. Joe has opponents, but in Florida's panhandle, it also has many allies. In part, that's because for local governments, development means jobs, new residents and an expanding tax base. 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 three-quarters of a million dollars to the State Republican Party alone. The company has nearly a dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee and has cultivated close ties with the succession of administrations from Lawton Chiles to Jeb Bush. In 1997, St. Joe even bought an interest in a real estate company in which Bush had been a partner. And some former Bush aides are now with St. Joe.
Mr. JERRY RAY (Vice President, St. Joe Company): How can you be a leader if you don't know people?
ALLEN: St. Joe vice president Jerry Ray makes no apologies about the company's political ties.
Mr. RAY: Yes, we have a lot of well-connected people, 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.
ALLEN: And does having friends in high places, does that help make the conversation a little easier?
Mr. RAY: Actually, I think it works the opposite way. Because of our size and the fact that we have chosen to accept the leadership role means that for St. Joe there is a lot more scrutiny.
ALLEN: 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.
Unlike most coastal communities in Florida, Apalachicola - the county's largest town - still has a working waterfront. Outside of one seafood processor, a steady stream of oyster shells flies out of a chute, landing on a big pile below. Walk further along the waterfront here and instead of condos and upscale shopping areas, you pass shrimpers and fishing boats. Eventually, you'll come to Water Street Seafood.
Mr. STEPHEN RASH (Business Owner, Apalachicola, Florida): These are some of the live blue crabs coming out of the bay. We've been getting - we've had a huge year of blue crabs.
ALLEN: Stephen Rash began this business 20 years ago while he was still in college and began selling shrimp on the side of the road. Now he has an $18 million a year business that employs 60 people. The St. Joe Company says it's committed to preserving Franklin County's heritage as it mainly built around the seafood industry. But those are promises, Rash says, many here view skeptically.
Mr. RASH: I do feel that I think St. Joe does have an interest in trying to preserve, I mean, I don't think they want to come in and just wipe everything out. But you know, St. Joe Company is a publicly owned company and they have stockholders to answer to. So you know, they're also very aware of their profits.
ALLEN: In rural counties across Florida's panhandle, county governments are weighing a series of developments. Beach resorts, entertainment complexes, even a new airport in which St. Joe has an interest. David McClain with the Seafood Workers Association questions whether county governments, that have part time commissioners and one or two-person planning departments, are up to the job.
Mr. MCLAIN: The St. Joe company has a regional perspective because they got lands in multiple counties out here, so they can always bitch about the sense that they have a master plan that works for county to county to county to county. You can't equal their resources; you can't equal the perspective that they have that way.
ALLEN: Along with 800,000 acres of land and a regional perspective, the St. Joe Company also has something else - time. Political opponents come and go but land, the lure of Florida, and the demand for housing are constants of which St. Joe is banking its future.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This is part of a series of reports on the biggest landowner in Florida. And you can hear about the history of the St. Joe Company at npr.org.
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