Where We Live
by Steve Carr
The Florida Follies
Playing next in Chesapeake Country
I just got home from a vacation on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where I witnessed development on an almost unimaginable scale. The folks who complain about growth around here ought to head south to the Sunshine State for a crash course in what seriously cranked-up development looks like.
I have always been a fan of the 1950-style motels, with knotty pine walls and goofy art deco trappings. Unlike the chain motels, they are usually inexpensive and pretty laid back. So as soon as we got off the plane at the Ft. Myers airport and picked up our rental car, we headed toward the beach in search of a castaway motel.
We needed to hurry to catch the sunset at Lover’s Key State Park, and took Interstate 75 south to Bonita Springs. That’s when we got a real taste of Florida gridlock. Let’s start with the fact that there are virtually no roads south of Tampa with more than two lanes even the Interstate. The main north-south outlet is essentially a parking lot no matter the time or day. And there is no escape because all the side roads are equally overloaded. So we crawled south in search of the Tamiami Trail, where we were sure to find the old Florida basking in the warm winter sun, like a sleepy gator.
There is no old Florida left. Everyone in the world wants to live in Florida, or visit, making land values so high that a sleepy motel, pecan store, swamp ape petting zoo, alligator ride or orange stand smacking of the citrus state’s past has been bought up and bulldozed to make way for the new Florida.
I don’t know how Florida managed to get around the Clean Water Act, but it looked like at least half the wetlands around the Florida Gulf have been destroyed; the other half are being trashed as you read. Apparently environmental laws do not apply in Florida.
Florida developers start by cutting a ditch along the edge of their mangrove forest wetland and draining off the water. Next, they mass-grade the property, installing the pipes, roads and other infrastructure. After that, they pay Jack Nicklaus to design a championship golf course in the center of the property, then surround the course with ginormous faux haciendas. As a final sledgehammer touch, they add a shopping mall with the usual American fast food pitstops and Chinese junk outlets. This is the destructive formula for virtually every development, and each one is huge, eating up hundreds of mucky acres at a swath.
This new Florida was built along the roads that serviced the old Florida. This means you have a meager two-lane road being squeezed to death, with new intersections popping up every day. Soon, each new crossroad needs a traffic light. Before long, it takes forever to go anywhere. Here at home, we can see this starting to happen, along Route 2, Route 4 and Route 301, and it will turn a highway into a stop-start nightmare.
Over the years, there has been a lot of debate around Annapolis about developers paying their fair share for upgrading schools and roads. Just as in Florida, many of those screaming the loudest are new arrivers who have built their dream homes out in the country or atop a former wetland buffer.
I don’t want to play the blame game or get into a debate about sprawl and the demise of the Chesapeake Bay. But I will point out that when you see development at its worst, like down in Florida, it’s easy to figure out what the real trouble is. It’s all about timing.
This whole country, including Florida and Maryland, seems to have it back-asswards. Once the houses and beany-weanies are built, adding capacity costs 10 times the money and aggravation.
The infrastructure that supports development, like roads, needs to be built before the development.
About All that’s Left
After driving around Ft. Myers for three tortuous hours on roads filled with retirees and general contractors, with every traffic light out of sync, with the through streets and housing complexes that all looked the same we found a funky old liquor store set back from the Tamiami Trail and surrounded by pink flamingos and laurel oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
We went inside the rundown place to buy some beer and ask the manager where we might find a cheap motel off the beaten path. The store was empty and smelled like 1962.
The owner used a turquoise-and-silver voice box on his throat to squawk. “All the old motels and the like were knocked down a long time ago, boys. I’m about all that’s left. And I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.”
I wonder the same about Bay Country.