Scripps Florida Is Expendable, Six Eastern Indigo Snakes Are Not
Around the State
Whenever folks at The Scripps Research Institute in North Palm Beach hit a rock in the road, they're more apt to get a kick in the teeth than a comforting cuddle.
That's how it's been since Scripps arrived; that's how it is now, when the biotech giant, part of the largest private, nonprofit biomedical research organization in the world, wants to expand on land it was promised would be specifically for that purpose.
If they want to expand there, they're going to have to fight for it.
Turns out the 40 acres Palm Beach County purchased for Scripps, plus another 30 acres property owners Peter and Paul Lester donated to them -- all across the road from their complex in the Abacoa development -- is part of the 700-acre Briger Forest, land highly coveted for preservation by South Florida environmentalists. It is one of the last remaining sizable tracts of contiguous forested land in Palm Beach County.
It's also home to gopher tortoises, wood storks, snowy egrets, hand fern -- but most important to the collection of eco-litigators now gathering like fruit flies around a ripe melon, it's home to a population of six threatened Eastern Indigo snakes.
Six movable snakes.
The point is, the environmentalists filed a notice of violations with the feds for permitting Scripps Florida's Phase II plans. They charge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disregarded the project's impact on the Eastern Indigo snake population, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
This is huge for Scripps.
Never mind that the forest sits right in the middle of the I-95 corridor, is overrun with exotics and isn't managed by either professionals or volunteers. The Endangered Species Act is an enviro-litigator's best friend. It can stop anything dead in its tracks.
So, imagine, if you will, the happy, assembled coalition: the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, The South Florida Wildlands Association, The Sierra Club of Florida led by its Loxahatchee group, and the Palm Beach County Green Party.
In 2010, the Briger tract was approved for 4 million square feet of biotech space.
In addition, it's zoned for 1.2 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail space and a 300-room hotel. Briger also is approved for plenty of housing, including 700 apartments, 1,400 multi-family homes and 600 single-family homes. The development would amount to about 170 acres for Scripps and bio-tech spin-offs, plus 500 acres for an Abacoa-like setup of shops, offices, a hotel and homes.
The Kolter Group Co. is under contract to buy those other 500 Briger acres in Palm Beach Gardens, said Shannon LaRocque, Palm Beach County assistant administrator. "We need a solid development partner for the property," she told Sunshine State News, "and Kolter is among the best."
Nothing has happened on the site between 2010 and now.
Its price could be a good reason. Though the value of the land sale still is unknown, appraisers claim it probably falls between $100 million and $150 million.
Without the Endangered Species Act, forget preservation, the property is priced out-of-sight. Even with it, the property's fate will be decided in court.
Meanwhile, Scripps has no Endangered Species Act equivalent riding to its rescue. The holdup is a blow for the medical researchers, who are working against a ticking clock. When their contract time is up, they have to pay their way. They need sources of revenue.
They thought they had a deal lined up with Tenet Healthcare Corp. The company was going to pay Scripps $5 million a year for an 80-bed hospital. But an administrative law judge overturned a previous hospital approval, saying the area doesn't need more hospital beds, which, to be honest, it doesn't, and Tenet plans don't pass the smell test to ever become "a world-class research and teaching hospital."
Scripps is stymied.
Nevertheless, sympathy for this nonprofit is always a little hard to come by. I suppose it's understandable. A lot of folks were Scripps fans before the game started. They had high hopes. But nobody likes the hotshot ballplayer who gets the multimillion-dollar contract, then can't get his average above the tick in a coin flip.
Which is about what happened.
First, Scripps floated into Florida on a sea of entitlements, including a 15-year, $390 million funding contract -- not even counting all they got from Palm Beach County. "Corporate welfare," the Democrats cried.
Second, they provided the 545 jobs they promised, but they haven't attracted anywhere near the number of biotech satellites and thousands of high-tech and research jobs that early on danced like sugar plums in state officials' heads. Clucked the critics, where is this mothership we were promised? Critics always have convenient memory loss. In this case, it was the country's deep recession, an event that killed many nonprofits. It might have slowed the world around Scripps, but the organization kept going.
Me, I'm glad Florida has Scripps. I applauded Jeb Bush as a visionary in 2002 when he first traveled to La Jolla, Calif., and made them an offer they couldn't refuse. I applauded legislators for reaching for the stars when it was their turn, looking to broaden Florida's economy and compete with the five great research centers around the country.
Remember, Scripps Florida was shooed from its originally promised Mecca Farms site in 2003 because it was too environmentally sensitive for development. Now here they are again 10 years later, looking across at their planned Briger expansion, told it shouldn't be planning anything in a "forest" that is home to the threatened Eastern Indigo snake.
I know, I know. Scripps got a whale of deal to come to Florida. But without the specialized workforce here, without the teaching hospital environment or the ability to import the Silicon Valley research network -- I don't care how much money the state gave them -- The Scripps Research Institute took one giant leap of faith the day they told Florida, "We're coming."
The environmentalists are wrong. Scripps does important work, it's good for Florida and it is not expendable.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.