There’s a truism in life: Once a piece of land is developed, built upon, altered, exploited – feel free to insert whatever verb you think describes the scenario best – it’s gone forever. It can never be reclaimed, returned to the wild. No matter how a person feels about change and its inevitability in the modern world, there is no arguing the above fact.
Which compels us here at Main Street Magazine to look at the certainty of progress and the consequences of such advancement on our planet. Progress comes at a cost. How can it not? After all, to build something new, something old must be destroyed … Usually.
Out with the old to make room for the new?
When something is intentionally destroyed, it’s typically to make an improvement. A battered old barn might be razed to make way for a brand new state-of-the-art barn, which could then house and feed dozens if not hundreds of dairy cows or other livestock. An old, defunct railroad bed could be ripped up to pave the way for an expansive new rail trail that could attract thousands of tourists and locals annually. A squalid, condemned building – a local eyesore – might be demolished to make room for an eye-catching, up-to-code commercial establishment that could draw shoppers, diners, and residents from around the region – all with plenty of cash to inject into the local economy. Perhaps, an overgrown field of grass and weeds could be mowed to erect a shopping plaza or a fancy city park.
Checks and balances
As much as the above actions may have a positive impact on their communities, whether in terms of economic development or simply by broadening their appeal, they could also potentially have negative repercussions – oftentimes environmental. That’s why certain projects in New York State require applicants go before local planning boards and through the State Environmental Quality Review Act process.
SEQRA mandates agencies in New York balance environmental impacts with social and economic factors when deciding to grant approval or undertake any action. The environmental review is a safeguard to ensure applicants with projects both big and small don’t cause unnecessary damage to local lands, waterways, habitats, flora, fauna or wildlife. It offers extensive guidelines and checklists to guarantee a given project is done properly before earning final approval.
If any red flags appear, say a bog turtle habitat is discovered in or bordering a project site, that could ultimately put an end to a proposal. However, if a review is given the green light, it may get approved and move through the engineering and construction phases to completion with relatively few roadblocks.
Change, aka progress, will come; it’s a fact of life, it’s unavoidable. It’s knocking – make that pounding – at your front door, regardless of where you live. Whether that’s for better or worse is not a question to be decided here and now. In the interim, God’s green earth – the beautiful natural world that surrounds us – will continue to evolve.
Like many who are fortunate enough to live in the still-rural Hudson Valley (as I once did), those who reside in South Florida (as I do now) understand what a state with development woes looks like. Florida has been dealing with such issues for more than 50 years.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Sunshine State was granted 500,000 acres in 1841 along with every other state in the Union by the US government. Combined with land Florida acquired through the Swamps and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850, the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund – an agency the state government created in 1855 – had more than 21 million acres under its control.
As the 22nd largest state in the US, Florida is the third most populous state – with more than 21 million residents. Many are snowbirds from New York (including this writer’s parents). It’s one of the few states in the eastern US that still has much of its natural landscape intact.
The problem in the Everglades
As encouraging as that statistic sounds, many of Florida’s native lands have been swallowed up by developers. Take the Everglades as an example. The famous swamp covers 4,300 square miles statewide, which equates to roughly 1.5 million acres. It is actually the “largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America,” according toevergladesholidaypark.com. In fact, the website notes it’s the third largest national park after Yellowstone and Death Valley.
However, the Everglades have been drained for decades by builders, to be filled and then built into new developments. Some of those developments have grown so large they’ve actually become their own incorporated cities, like Weston, west of Fort Lauderdale.
Another example is the town of Davie, just minutes from upscale Weston. It was also built on what was once Everglades swampland – home to the American alligator and the American crocodile (the only place in the world where the two species co-exist) and the Florida panther (one of the world’s most endangered species with fewer than 100 remaining). The Everglades provides habitats for countless snake, bird, and fish species; it’s the breeding grounds to myriad birds and other tropical animals; it’s host to at least nine ecosystems; and it provides daily water to nearly eight million Floridians.
Everglades National Park was established in 1947 to preserve South Florida’s biologically diverse wetlands and other natural resources. Yet large portions of the environmentally sensitive Everglades are now gone. In fact, 50% of the wetlands have disappeared thanks to development, with only half remaining today.
Eager builders began draining the Everglades as far back as the 1930s, and the deluge of development has only gained traction in the 90 years since. It’s no wonder, as the DEP says the state’s population has grown by about 4% annually since 1950.
The DEP also notes that in the last 50 years, more than eight million acres of forest and wetland habitats in Florida – roughly 24% of the state – have been developed. If development continues at this rate, it won’t be sustainable; Florida could run out of physical space to house all of its residents.
Davie, meanwhile, has a population of nearly 107,000 and is roughly 35,000 square miles; it’s located in central Broward County, adjacent to Miami-Dade County. Davie was named after developer Robert Parsell Davie in 1916, according to the Sun Sentinel; he had helped drain the Everglades to build a local school. Residents voted nine years later to incorporate the town, but after the taxes were levied, they petitioned to have the government retract its status. It was formally incorporated again in 1963.
During a recent drive through Davie, I caught sight of a vacant lot primed for construction. The sign boasted information about The Oaks of Davie luxury housing development, with homes starting at $1,049,000. The Rhino Homes (“a group of professionals with over 30 years of experience in the construction business in Latin America and the US”) website states the houses sell for up to $1.4 million, for a home with five bedroom and five bathrooms. They look lovely, but they don’t come cheap.
It should be noted that it’s not only the more recent, trendier parts of South Florida where communities like Weston and Davie have cropped up after sensitive environmental areas like the Everglades were dredged and filled to create desirable areas and build anew. It’s actually been a trend since Florida was first pegged as a destination decades ago.
In fact, Miami Beach itself is the result of such actions. Marine engineer John H. Levi worked with millionaire businessman Carl Fisher to develop a number of man-made islands, including Star, Palm, and Hibiscus Islands, as well as Sunset Islands, parts of Normandy Isle, and all of the Venetian Islands (minus Belle Isle), which were created in the 1920s when Biscayne Bay was dredged at their command; of course, there’s also the coveted Fisher Island (named after Fisher).
We’re at maximum capacity
A recent informal survey among Florida natives, transplants, and visitors came to a consensus: South Florida is at maximum occupancy.
Drive down the street of any random town or walk through any given neighborhood and it’s fairly apparent that much of South Florida’s natural domain has been replaced by multimillion dollar condominiums, apartment buildings, housing developments, and every possible plaza, shopping center, professional building, high rise, or other commercial enterprise imaginable.
Take the town of North Miami Beach, just a hop, skip and a jump from Collins Avenue, the iconic ocean-front roadway dotted with once-famous beach motels and tiki bars that back up to the sandy strip. Twenty years ago, one could drive down Collins, gulp in the salty ocean air, and catch sight of the waves crashing along the shore. Today, you can’t even get a glimpse of the azure blue ocean from the road, no less inhale anything other than toxic fumes from the heavy traffic that clogs Collins for hours. It causes anxiety and frustration instead of creating the peace and freedom once felt while driving along the beautiful beach boulevard.
The Planning Boards and Building Departments reversed zoning laws in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, allowing high rises along the beach. That gave developers the leeway to squeeze extremely tall and very expensive buildings onto every possible square inch of open space, allowing towering oceanfront properties where charming two or three-story hotels and apartment buildings once stood. Now, roughly 30 years later, we’re reaping the rewards… or is it the penalties?
Bringing it back home
Which circles us back to the Hudson Valley. Until last year, this lovely part of New York had been my home. It is inarguably one of the most picturesque parts of the US, likely why an entire style of painting – and an American art culture – was named after it: The Hudson River School (heavily influenced by Romanticism and founded in the 1850s by Thomas Cole and other landscape painters from New York City).
Those artists valued the Valley’s scenic beauty and its natural resources. That beauty is still valued, as seen by the number of developers knocking on the doors of those who live in the region with property that whets buyers’ appetites. Many in the area who have observed the rapid rate of development in places like South Florida have expressed some concerns about guarding local resources. Understandably, they want to protect the pristine nature of the Valley before it’s too late.
Hence the benefit of laws like SEQRA and other local resources created to make sure man’s influence does no harm. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that, but knowledge brings power, as does foresight. That’s why a glance southward might be wise for those lucky enough to live in regions that have remained relatively rural or partially undeveloped. Certainly, there are still such pockets in Dutchess and Columbia Counties and its environs.
So, while Florida may seem a world away from the Hudson Valley – especially as northerners remain at risk of grappling with snow shovels and roof rakes while southerners are dealing with sunscreen and bug spray – the fact is once the welcome gates open to developers and their dollars, there’s always the potential for irreparable harm.
You can never go back
Case in point? Damage has been done to the Everglades as a result of the massive amount of development in South Florida. Once done, it’s often difficult to undo such damage, although these days steps are typically taken to try to mitigate environmental harm.
Environmentalists did not have any luck with this in the Everglades, where high levels of phosphorus have been recorded. The nonmetallic chemical element belonging to the nitrogen family seeped into parts of the subtropical wetlands’ ground and water causing agricultural and stormwater runoff and degrading water quality as far back as the 60s.
Because native species and flora and fauna in the Everglades developed under low-phosphorus conditions, dangerously high levels of phosphorus caused loss of algae; loss of oxygen vital for fish populations; and changed native plant communities, affecting feeding areas for wading birds.
As a result, it’s believed that more than 40,000 acres of the public Everglades parkland were negatively affected by 1990. The Environmental Protection Agency has noted the loss of such vital wetlands, motivating the state to take steps to protect the Everglades from further phosphorus degradation.
“Better water quality will support tourism, recreation and wildlife, and protect the Everglades for future generations,” posted epa.gov.
My translation of the EPA’s statement above: When the world around us is healthier, more robust and more beautiful, everyone benefits. Sadly, it’s also a statement on the reality that we often wait until something goes awry until we fix it.
Let’s just hope that most builders and developers concur that our native habitats are worth protecting, because most of us would probably all concur that the world in its natural state is amazing, and few would want to see it destroyed. Yet we can all also likely accept that we need places to live, to work, to shop, and to play – and without developers and builders helping us progress, such places will cease being created.
The takeaway here is that the natural environment and the man-made environment must coexist; the key is that they do so harmoniously.