From Bitter to Sweet

Forget the awful past, say Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, Florida's sugar barons. It's time to make nice and go into real estate.

The meeting that Pepe Fanjul, Jr., skipped, the one that could decide the fate of the family's development plans, began with a falsehood. Gaston Cantens, the Fanjuls' spokesman, explained Pepe Fanjul's absence. "A worker severed his hand today, and Pepe went to handle it. He wanted to be here, but ...."

Across from him at the table in a Boca Raton law office sat Rosa Durando, the 78-year-old environmentalist with the power to help the Fanjuls create their new development. A former horse trainer, Durando regularly lectures elected officials over develoment projects and has earned respect as someone who's willing to compromise. Others will refuse all new development, while Durando has sought middle ground. The Fanjuls want her backing. Convincing her means possibly convincing many in the environmental community -- and perhaps swaying the county commission to put Scripps on Fanjul land.

Colby Katz
After losing his hand in a Fanjul factory, José Gallardo wonders how he'll pay his bills
Colby Katz
After losing his hand in a Fanjul factory, José Gallardo wonders how he'll pay his bills

To persuade Durando, the Fanjuls sent an impressive three-man team -- the trio's prestige further proof of the Fanjuls' ability to enlist high-powered talent in their cause. On her right sat Samuel E. Poole III, a former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District who recently joined the Fanjuls. Across from her were Cantens and Michael Davis, a consultant hired by the Fanjuls to draw up the plans. Davis once earned respect among conservationists for running Everglades restoration for the Army Corp of Engineers. The three wore dark slacks and white dress shirts with no tie. They carried legal pads and rolled maps and graphics of the proposals. Meanwhile Durando, looking grandmotherly in flower-print pants and purple top, plopped down a tattered notebook, a long shoelace tied to the spine so it doesn't get lost among her home's stacks of papers.

Davis spoke first: "They're willing to use their land as an example of how to do a green community. I think we're talking about a community like we haven't seen in Florida."

Durando answered with a diatribe on the water management board, then on lazy politicians, and then the history of Everglades restoration. For the next sixteen minutes the three men nodded along with her, inserted polite giggles, and even paid close attention as she complained about kids joy-riding on country roads and the planned cemetery near her house. In the end, though, she went back to her usual critical ways. "We'll have to see what you propose pretty explicitly," Durando demanded, banging her bony finger into an artist's rendering of the plans. It showed a flow-way of water with two arrows pointing into preserve lands to the south. "I'm going to hold off on final determination unless you have something better than a couple of squiggly arrows."

The Fanjul team feared defeat. "Well, why wait?" Poole asked. "This is the public-private partnership we need to use as the right model and duplicate it elsewhere."

Durando interrupted, "People tell me that this ought to be the last stand." She explained that environmentalists have chastised her for even talking with the Fanjuls. Groups including 1000 Friends of Florida and the Environmental and Land Use Law Center fear that the Fanjul project could lead to massive urban sprawl and doom Everglades restoration. A community in the western Palm Beach County expanse would be smack in the middle of preservation lands to the north and south. But Durando acknowledged that the Fanjul plan might be the best option. Buying the land outright for preservation would be too costly, so if development is coming, perhaps this is best.

Davis chimed in: "The Fanjul family wants to do something good here, and I think that they mean it. These lines are not just smoke and mirrors."

Still Durando held off her support. "I want to see something on paper, something that guarantees to me that you are going to do what you're saying here."

That's what essentially ended the meeting. The Fanjul folks changed the subject. A promise, especially on paper, was apparently too much to ask. Cantens suggested maybe Durando could set up another meeting, next time bringing other environmentalists. "We'll have it at your place," Poole added.

"We'll see," Durando said, looking a bit tired as the party headed to the elevators. "We'll see about all this."

When the County Commission met August 17 to consider the Fanjuls' land as the new home to Scripps, everything seemed to fall into place. Their campaign donations, their lobbying efforts, their attempts at convincing environmentalists they could be trusted -- all seemed to have worked. Mary McCarty, who's received $4000 in donations from the Fanjuls just since 2002, more than any other commissioner, noted that the Fanjul property was the best fit for Scripps. Commissioner Tony Masilotti, recipient of $1000 in Fanjul money, noted that the land is destined to be developed. "We need to look in the future," he said.

Then Rosa Durando pulled the podium microphone down to her level. "It would be best to work out a deal with Mr. Fanjul," Durando told the commissioners. "It's the only plan that offers some environmental benefit."

Not long after Durando spoke, Fanjul spokesman Cantens crept out of the commission chambers and back to the Florida Crystals headquarters at 1 N. Clematis St. He left because, in a tactical move, the Fanjuls had quietly withdrawn their proposal to turn sugar land into a headquarters for Scripps. The Fanjuls had learned that during a closed-door meeting, Scripps had told county officials that it didn't want to locate on the Fanjuls' property. There were too many environmental concerns, and the location was too far west. If the Fanjuls had gone forward with their proposal, it would have surely resulted in a failed bid. Instead they'll come back without Scripps and without a botched plan behind them.

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