How Florida’s Land Swindlers Won Out

October 3, 2022

Michael Grunwald in The Atlantic:

Cape Coral is Florida on steroids, a comically artificial landscape featuring seven perfectly rectangular man-made islands and eight perfectly square man-made lakes. It was built by two shady brothers who made their fortunes selling scammy anti-baldness tonics, then used their talent for flimflam to sell inaccessible swampland to suckers. They didn’t bother to build sewers or parks or other infrastructure, except all those eco-destructive plumbing canals designed to dry out the floodplain and create waterfront property along their banks. It was just a real-estate play, a quarter acre in middle-class heaven for $20 down and $20 a month, and the suckers bought it, even after the hucksters got busted for fraud.

Environmental destruction is bad, especially for a state whose natural resources are its best selling point, and it’s a shame that the drive to tame nature that carved Cape Coral out of a swamp has been so prevalent in Florida. Fraud is also bad, and also synonymous with a state whose real-estate market has been a punch line for a century. “You can even get stucco,” the land-swindler played by Groucho Marx quipped in Cocoanuts. “Oh, how you can get stuck-oh!”

But it’s important to remember that Cape Coral’s hucksters and suckers were ultimately right. Cape Coral now has 200,000 residents. It’s got no colleges, tourist attractions, or major industries—its top employers are its government, hospital, and supermarkets—but not only is it still one of America’s fastest-growing cities, it’s projected to remain in the top five for decades to come. It’s a triumph of Lies That Came True, which was the title of a 1983 memoir by a Cape Coral pioneer, and could be the state motto.

For too long, too much of the Florida economy has been an ecological Ponzi scheme that depends on bringing in 1,000 new residents a day, including the mortgage brokers and drywall installers and landscapers whose livelihoods depend on bringing 1,000 more new residents the next day. There’s no culture of long-term planning or investing, no ethic of limits or responsibility or risk management. Florida has always been about now, mine, more.

That’s all bad, too, and this week, Mother Nature registered an objection. But that doesn’t mean we’ll learn our lesson.

One thing i’ve learned in my years of whining about Florida’s unsustainable trajectory in the climate era is that most Floridians don’t care. Some certainly do, including some ordinary citizens who get radicalized when their sparkling estuary gets overrun by foul-smelling guacamole glop or they can’t breathe at the beach. But most don’t, especially if they’re new to Florida, especially if they’re newly retired to Florida. They’re here to enjoy the warm weather in a state with no income tax, not to build a better tomorrow for future generations.

I’m looking out my window right now at another beautiful sunny day in South Florida. I never really understood until I moved here that winter was optional. Some people don’t care for the heat and humidity, especially now that climate change is ratcheting up the heat, and it’s no fun to be in the path of a deadly hurricane. Usually, though, we’re not. Usually, it’s just nice. It’s certainly way nicer than Boston or Brooklyn, or Michigan or Minnesota, in the winter.

That’s why people keep coming, and it’s interesting to see where they’re going. America’s fastest-growing metro over the past decade was not Cape Coral but the Villages, the ultra-Republican retirement community in Central Florida.In 2016, nine of the 20 fastest-growing metros were in Florida, and eight of them voted for Donald Trump. That trend explains why Florida, long considered the ultimate swing state, is now a Republican state.

The day after DeSantis was first sworn into Congress in 2013, he voted against federal aid for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. Now he’s pushing for federal aid for the victims of Ian, which is a very Florida form of hypocrisy. And DeSantis has risen to national prominence behind a very Florida form of now-mine-more messaging, proclaiming this the “free state” of Florida, where you don’t have to worry about public-health scolds telling you to wear a mask or get a vaccine, or pointy-headed planners telling you where to build your house or when to water your lawn. He’s selling irresponsibility as a virtue. Worrying about consequences is for losers.

Yes, sometimes the bill comes due. But it’s not clear to what extent the people of Florida, other than the storm’s immediate victims, will have to pay it. My insurer went bankrupt last month, one of six to go under in Florida this year, and the state took over my policy, as it surely did for thousands of Floridians who will now file claims. But the Republican leaders who have assumed for the past quarter century that the feds will bail us out after the Big One were probably right. We’ve gotten too big to fail.

I want to be clear: This is all bad, and Florida doesn’t have to be like this. I ended my Cape Coral story with a trip to Babcock Ranch, a new solar-powered, smart-growth, flood-protected community a half-hour inland that was conceived as Florida’s sustainable city of the future. I checked in with the developer, Syd Kitson, after Babcock took a direct hit from Ian, and he had good news: “The power and internet never went off, no flooding and minimal damage,” Kitson wrote. “It’s everything you and I talked about several years ago.”

But the way things ought to be is not always the way things are. Sunshine, low taxes, and freedom from consequences can be a compelling vision, especially for the old and cold, and it’s working for Florida’s Republicans just as it worked for Cape Coral’s developers. The next wave of newcomers won’t let concerns about boil-water orders or insurance crises deter them. The Florida growth machine has outlasted a lot of killer storms, and it will outlast this one too. We ignored what was coming, and we’ll forget what came.


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