The Adventures of Eco Man

Port Bougainville was controversial from the start. In 1981 and 1982, Miami Herald reporters Brian Duffy and Carl Hiaasen broke a series of front-page stories that chronicled a pattern of loose oversight, conflict of interest, and political shenanigans among Monroe County officials who monitored the building project. A grand jury in the Keys later criticized Monroe County Mayor Jerry Hernandez and his fellow commissioners for accepting helicopter rides and other freebies from Port Bougainville developer Fritz Scharenberg.

For years North Key Largo, a 12,000-acre stretch of hardwood hammock and sensitive mangrove wetland just 40 miles south of Miami, had escaped commercial intrusion because of a dearth of natural drinking water. That changed at the end of 1980, when the county began building a new water pipeline. Ostensibly the pipeline was to service the residents of the already existing Ocean Reef Club, a millionaires' village at the north end of the island. But the denizens of Ocean Reef already had an expensive desalination system, wanted no part of the pipeline project, and sued in court to keep from paying for it. Meanwhile, pipe was being laid on the wrong side of Card Sound Road - through the habitat of the endangered American crocodile. The completion of the water line in early 1982 touched off a furious land grab. Some twenty applications for North Key Largo developments went before the pro-business Monroe County zoning board, which quickly approved them, as was their custom. By far the most grandiose of these ventures was Port Bougainville, a 2800-unit complex in the style of a Mediterranean fishing village, complete with a helicopter landing pad, a boat yard, service station, shopping mall, and jetport.

Aside from the traffic, noise, and hurricane evacuation problems the newly approved North Key Largo developments would create, Ed Davidson and his fellow environmentalists opposed them for other reasons. Port Bougainville and its smaller imitators would straddle the habitat of a half-dozen threatened or endangered species. The area the developers were eyeing lies just west of one of the world's largest barrier reefs, in a delicate ecosystem bordered on three sides by state and federal park land.

In Under Cover of Daylight, a best-selling eco-thriller set in the Florida Keys, novelist James Hall comes close to chronicling Davidson's real-life battles for North Key Largo. The book describes a down-and-dirty fight over the endangered wood rat and the fate of a fictional "Port Allamanda." In one scene, outnumbered environmentalists and money-mad developers meet for a public hearing in the lunchroom at Key Largo Elementary School. At that point, Davidson's friends say, the novel's protagonist sounds suspiciously like Captain Ed:

"When will it be that someone will walk into a room like this and say, `I'll trade you a library, I'll trade you a couple hundred temporary jobs for your last lobster'? Is that when you'll say no? Not lobsters. We like lobsters. Or make that sailfish. Or put in there grouper, snapper, trout. You name it." The speaker continues: "We've got numbers, facts, charts. We can show your taxes are going to go up, not down. We can show how many more cars there'll be between you and the grocery. How long the lines are going to be at the bank and the drugstore. We can tell you just how small the trickle coming out of your faucet will be as soon as they tap into the lines. But this whole thing isn't numbers. It's not numbers at all."

That speech, phrased one way or another, time and time again, was Davidson's drumbeat. Throughout the early 1980s, as head of the Florida Keys Audubon Society and the Florida Keys Citizens Coalition, he and fellow activists fought a war of attrition from Key West to Tallahassee to Washington, winding through suits and countersuits, name calling and anonymous death threats, negotiations and lobbying, criminal investigations and demonstrations. In 1982, when he was operating a commercial dive shop in Marathon, Davidson ran a late-starting and underfunded campaign for county commission. He lost, but surprised even himself by winning 44 percent of the vote in a run-off, thus demonstrating the depth of concern about development in the Keys.

"It seemed impossible at that time to stop anything as significantly linked to the decision makers as Bougainville was," recalls Dagny Johnson, a preservationist member of the Monroe zoning board, appointed in 1980 by the lone reform commissioner, Wilhelmina Harvey. "We must have gone to every appellate court in the state, and we lost every time. Ed never gave up. He was absolutely tireless. I have never seen such a bundle of outrage. He was fresh and irreverent, and plenty eye catching."

Nothing about the four-year battle for North Key Largo was simple, including the end. The lawsuit brought by the Audubon Society under the federal Endangered Species Act cost the developers money and bought time for Davidson and his cohorts. Still, although its backers never received a certificate of occupancy, Port Bougainville was able to proceed with construction. Davidson was forced to compromise. He and his colleagues negotiated concessions to lessen the adverse impact of the project. Along the way, Davidson and Port Bougainville developer Fritz Scharenberg struck up a surprising friendship - a fact that enraged other nearby builders and worried activists. (Today Davidson remembers Scharenberg fondly: "Fritz and I got along famously even though I cost him millions," he recalls. "He agreed to do things no developer in the history of the Keys ever did.") Eventually, Port Bougainville's financing fell apart. Scharenberg pulled out, leaving his mammoth dream to the weeds and wood rats. At Davidson's urging, the state was able to move in and buy the land.

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