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Nancy Smith

Did Environmental Icon Maggy Hurchalla Finally Outsmart Herself?

December 8, 2013 - 6:00pm

Technology might finally have outsmarted Maggy Hurchalla, one of the state's leading environmentalists -- a champion of Everglades restoration and the author of Martin County's controversial, often-litigious, comprehensive plan rewrites.

What technology are we talking about? Her just-surfaced private email. The kind that never seems to go away. One of the "letters" she wrote to a county commissioner has become a focal point in a lawsuit against her for "tortious interference," legal lingo for interfering with a company's ability to conduct business.

Lake Point, a rock mine located in Martin County, filed the lawsuit against Hurchalla last February, claiming she worked "aggressively behind the scenes" making false statements in an attempt to kill a deal made with the previous commission majority that would transfer the 2,000-acre property to a state agency and allow mining for 20 years.

And in so doing, claims the suit, the five-time Martin County commissioner "has had a material impact on Lake Points business operation, costing time and money and harming the reputation of the project and the owners.
Hurchalla is singling out Lake Point and is attempting to put Lake Point out of business.

Hurchalla's inner circle scoffs and calls Lake Point's action a despicable SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). They predict she will be vindicated and her First Amendment rights confirmed.

Maybe. But read "Hurchalla-Fielding Email Exchange: Evidence of Skulduggery in Lake Point Case?" in the latest edition of Martin County Currents. It is an outstanding tellingof Hurchalla's alleged take-charge involvement in the new commission majority's dealing with Lake Point.

As the story will tell you, Hurchalla had made several public comments that Lake Point destroyed 60 acres of wetlands, even though Martin County Growth Management Director Nicki van Vonno reported to the commission that no wetlands had been destroyed. Hurchalla also charged that Lake Point's rock pit was deeper than allowed by the county's comprehensive plan, which the county has not verified and Lake Point disputes.

In the email, dated Jan. 12 -- just as the new commission majority was gearing up -- Hurchalla, using the code name "DEEP rockpit," appears to give advice to at least one commissioner on how to proceed to get out of the Lake Point deal:

Avoid discussion of other issues," Hurchalla advises. "Dont complicate things. Just set up a meeting to legally void that contract. Dont issue any cease and desist order on the mining. Get the contract cancelled and wait for staff to come back. Doug (Commissioner Doug Smith) will scream that you are missing an opportunity to save the river and giving up money due the county. Engineering will back him up. (Don) Donaldson is Dougs man.

Commissioner Ed Fielding's response: Thanks for the input, Maggy.

(Click here for Hurchalla's private email with Fielding's response, attached to Lake Point's legal motion filed Nov. 25 in district court asking that the county be compelled to produce all commissioners' private emails that pertain to Lake Point, and to testify about them under oath.)

"Hurchalla is singling out Lake Point and is attempting to put Lake Point out of business,the suit claims.

Now, this seems a little far-fetched, wouldn't you think? How could any one person's sticks and stones inflict so much damage on a multimillion-dollar business?

Because Maggy Hurchalla is no ordinary Martin County citizen. Her word carries enormous weight. She is the most powerful person in the county -- more powerful even than "unelected commissioner" Virginia Sherlock, the environmental attorney who keeps county staff in line and commissioners on the same page as Hurchalla.

Maggy -- everybody affectionately calls her by her first name -- has bona fide environmental credentials that elevate the county's standing as a quality place to live. At 72, she is beloved throughout Martin, the sister of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, brought up in Miami on the edge of the Everglades, a passionate conservationist who worked on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) at its conception.

But the community is about to discover there are two Maggy Hurchallas -- public Maggy and puppeteer Maggy. I saw them both in the 28 years I lived on the Treasure Coast.

Public Maggy is the easy-going, charasmatic former Martin County commissioner who has pied-piper charisma, who kayaks gently in local waterways and shares with young and old alike her fierce love of nature and the environment that makes Martin County special. Public Maggy is the one who can laugh at adversity, who shines in every public opportunity, even volunteers to make a surprise guest voice appearance on The Simpsons FOX-TV show with sister Janet.

Martin County, almost to its last resident, admires public Maggy, and for all of those reasons she has earned her place in their heart.

But the other Maggy, the Maggy few see, lives behind the curtain. Puppeteer Maggy loves power, loves control. By all accounts, one of the hardest things Maggy ever had to face in public life was losing that power, losing her commission seat in 1994 to Elmira Gainey.Her way back into the limelight was through the Martin County Conservation Alliance, which she "remade" by removing all members who had connections in the business community -- some of the very people who helped establish the alliance in the first place. During the 1990s, The Stuart News fielded bitter complaints that Maggy had drivena wedge between citizens who follow her lead and those who don't -- particularly those in any business loosely connected with development. Their point of view was unwelcome.

Puppeteer Maggy never ran for office again, but when a no-growth majority was elected to the County Commission in 1996, she "volunteered" to rewrite the county's comprehensive plan -- particularly the parts that involved growth management and wetlands. Legal challenges have never been a problem for Maggy. It's right if she says so, the risk of defending a costly lawsuit is justified -- damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Maggy has always had powerful friends on Jupiter Island. During at least some of the years she didn't have the commission majority she wanted, attorneys for the alliance -- usually with 1000 Friends of Florida's backing -- filed suit against the county.

Puppeteer Maggy tends her reputation like a garden, allowing journalists to write without correction that she "helped create" Martin Countys four-story height limit, even though she did not. Martin County's four-story height limit was formulated by the commission in place the same year Maggy was elected. By the time she had anything to do with it, the height limit was a done deal.

This is the Maggy who has one voice for "the citizens," and another for those who, like Sherlock and County Commission Chair Sarah Heard, do her bidding. For 20 years as county commissioner, if she believed it would bring more people to Martin, Maggy voted against it or worked behind the scenes to marginalize it. Moving the county from septic tanks to sewers was one of those things.

Since the early 1970s she has pulled the strings that made the county in her image.

Martin residents get their first glimpse -- it's just a glimpse for now -- of this other side of Maggy Hurchalla in her Jan. 12 email. There could be more to come if Lake Point lawyers get their hands on Commission Chair Heard's hard drive.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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