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Thursday October 23rd 2014

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Finding the Lost Key

Battle for Perdido Key (Beach)
By Jeremy Morrison

Perdido Key is a slender strip of Florida sand that flirts with Alabama. It hides out on the state line, playing it cool—Escambia County’s other barrier island.

The Key is sleepy by most standards to the east and west. Sans observation wheel. Condos, but no hotels.

For locals, it is home. For others, it is respite from the crowds—or window wallpaper en route to a drink at the Flora-Bama.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Gene Valentino holds the island close to his heart. He lives there—“out there, to the west”—and speaks often of “parity” for Perdido, demanding respect for the Key.

“Perdido Key has historically been considered the red-headed stepchild,” Valentino said recently.

The chairman would like to see that change. And he can sense Perdido Key is on the cusp of an evolution. Can almost taste it.

Other residents on the island can sense it too. They’ve been showing up with increasing frequency in downtown Pensacola for county commission meetings.

“In the spirit of what I want to tell you about, please, Gene, and the rest of the commissioners, don’t take offense to this,” Alan Dennis addressed the commission in mid-March. “I and countless other Perdido Key property owners have been saddened and disappointed by what’s happening on Perdido Key in recent days, specifically the county’s attempt to change the name of Perdido Key and more recently the termination of the master plan contract with DPZ.”

The man was among several Key residents who showed up that night. He was followed by Wendy Underhill, who was livid about the possibility of changing Perdido Key’s name to “Perdido Key Beach.” She dove into a stash of Valentino’s emails obtained via a public records request.

“I hold in my hand, 12 pages of emails that passed through Mr. Valentino’s office, dating back to the spring of 2012,” said Underhill. “In these 12 pages, I have counted 28 references to ‘name change.’”

Valentino explained to his constituents that he never intended to change Perdido Key’s name—“I love the name and I love it as is”—and that the county was only trying to get the state to install signage directing interstate driver’s to Perdido’s beaches. Underhill launched a Facebook page called “We Are Perdido Key” that urged people to protect the island from “rampant commercialization,” and featured a cartoon that casted Valentino as a circus ringleader against a backdrop of snarled beach traffic and a horizon of high-rises.

A couple of weeks later, the Chairman reflected on the sentiments expressed by Underhill’s camp. He described it as “misinformation” and said the public was being misled.

“They walk away feeling we’re bringing Satan into the church,” Valentino said.

Lostville

Translated into Spanish, “Perdido” means “lost.” In the late 1600s, Spanish explorers first named the strip of sand “Perdido.”

Perdido Key is about 16 miles long and a few hundred yards wide. More than half of that is designated as state or federal parks.

The key wasn’t always an island. It used to be a peninsula, prior to the Intracoastal Waterway being dug in the 1930s.

During the years of segregation, Pensacola Beach was a “whites only” destination. The Perdido area became popular among African-Americans. Today, a stretch of the beach is named in honor of Army Private Rosamond Johnson Jr., an African-American, Purple Heart recipient and the first Escambia resident to die in the Korean War.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy’s surplus 700-acre Gulf Beach Gunnery Range on the Key was auctioned off to a single developer and later subdivided into 700 lots. The going rate was apparently about $2,700 for a 50-foot beach parcel.

More recently, Escambia County has been eyeing changes on Perdido Key. There are plans for future developments and the widening of the state roadway that runs the island.

Even more recently, Perdido residents pushed the county to bring aboard Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ)—a big deal urban planning firm from Miami—to create a long-term vision for the community. That vision resulted in the Perdido Key Master Plan.

Kind of, sort of.

Visions with Valentino

The bugs along Perdido Bay in the late afternoon are vicious and persistent. Like gnats equipped with rows of razor sharp shark teeth and the determination of the IRS. They gnaw at any available patch of skin and leave you scratching furiously for a week.

The bugs don’t seem to be bothering Chairman Valentino. He’s focused on a vision. Several visions, really.

At the moment, Valentino’s envisioning an eventual extension to his deck. Once his new ICON seaplane arrives—the craft isn’t ready yet, but he’s on the list, along with Pensacola Beach hotelier Julian MacQueen and actor John Travolta—he plans to revamp his deck to double as a landing pad of sorts. He looks forward to landing the ICON on Perdido Bay and walking in his back door.

It’s a grand plan, something a guy will dream up and never do. But something in Valentino’s voice makes it clear that this dream’s realization is only a matter of details. It will happen and it will be badass.

For now, Valentino will be satisfied with the ICON model that sits on the coffee table. But soon he will no doubt be landing a plane in his backyard.

Valentino has other visions, too. He envisions an all-encompassing waterfront management district, and a regional mass transit effort. He also has designs on the future of Perdido Key.

Some island residents have vocally painted Valentino as development-hungry. They fear becoming Orange Beach’s curtain of beachfront hotels and bristle at the thought of traffic riding a four-lane speedway through their community.

Valentino disputes such characterizations.

“Turning it into urban sprawl is not on my agenda,” he explains.

Valentino knows Perdido is special—“not like every other concrete slab up and down the Gulf Coast”—and says he doesn’t want to see it dotted with as many hotels as Orange Beach, or even Pensacola Beach.

“But, geez, I think we can support one or two in my lifetime,” the chairman laughs.

Valentino describes Perdido Key as a “quiet and qualitatively growing region of the county.” He feels Escambia County needs to help facilitate and guide that future growth.

“This is America’s best-kept secret, but the secret’s gotten out,” Valentino said, “so the trick is to make sure we manage our growth effectively.”

Guru Straddling a Four-Lane

Andres Duany was introduced to the Escambia County Planning Board as a “new urbanism guru, founder.”

“Thank you, Horace,” said Duany. “I’ll have to live that down.”

Duany is a principal of DPZ, the Miami planning firm the county hired to craft a master plan for the Perdido area. His firm services clients around the world, and has worked locally on the coastal communities of Seaside and Rosemary Beach.

Last year, DPZ began working with the Perdido Key community to determine how best to usher the island into the future. Together they hashed out various issues—making the Key friendlier to pedestrians and bikers and accommodating the Perdido Key Beach Mouse, as well as growth—through a series of charrette-style meetings.

Duany recalled his work with the community, describing the island’s residents as Old Florida holdouts whose jaws were left dropped as condos sprouted up on the Key during the last construction boom.

“I sometimes felt like I was a doctor dealing with a trauma victim,” he said.

The urban planner said that the area had suffered from a lack of vision and guidance— “by the way, your planning department is very well intentioned, they haven’t had the tools”— in past growth. He explained that the Key is on the brink and urged the quick passage of the master plan, explaining that any controversial elements could be worked out later.

“Let me actually bring up what my real worry is, I think Perdido Key is at the absolute last chance it has to become a great place,” Duany told the planning board. “It’s the last moment—you build a few more condos, you give up a few more intersections, you make a couple of more mistakes it’s gone, it can never be recovered, at least not in our lifetime, it can’t be recovered.”

By most accounts, the resulting plan—which envisioned the Key as kind of a new urbanism utopia with a series of town centers—was a success. Everyone likes it. Key residents like it, county staff likes it, Valentino likes it.

Except for one major aspect:  the four-laning of Perdido Key Drive, or State Road 292.

When DPZ presented their Perdido Key Master Plan in October, the main roadway on Perdido Key did not feature the four-lane design desired by the county. The firm contended that the area’s growth did not merit such an expansion and that it would lead to drivers speeding through the area instead of fostering a pedestrian-friendly feel.

Horace Jones, division manager in the county’s planning department, said that county staff understood the concerns expressed by DPZ and Perdido residents, but stressed that the four-laning of Perdido Key Drive was non-negotiable. He said the directive was coming from “upper level administration.”

“We do understand new urbanism and the concepts, as far as the planning department,” Jones said. “Yet, within the scope of work it states that Perdido Key will be four-laned. There has been an enormous amount of resources, time and energy that predated the master plan… I am just the messenger.”

Some planning board members appeared sympathetic to exploring other options— “sometimes better ideas do come along”—and questioned if Escambia was truly locked-in to a four-lane road.

“How nice to say, I don’t know, ‘Gee, I know it’s planned to spend bucket-loads of money to do that, but maybe we don’t need to spend bucket-loads of money to do that,’” suggested planning board member Karen Sindel. “Sometimes we have to be responsive to better ideas and to be willing to listen to them, that’s the whole concept of planning—that we look at where we are now, not where we were seven years ago when maybe some decisions were made.”

Jones assured the board that the road would be four-laned. A few minutes later a lady stepped up to the public lectern and read lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“‘They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot,’” the woman quoted the song lyrics, “‘don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone…’”

A couple of days after the planning board meeting, Escambia County terminated its contract with DPZ.

Looking for the Signs

In February, the Escambia County Commission approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Department of Transportation change the map-designation of Perdido Key to “Perdido Key Beach.” The end goal was to get the state to place signs along the interstate and secondary roadways directing drivers to Perdido’s beach.

“There were mistakes made by the DOT in Chipley and I’m angry,” Valentino said in early April, a day before he asked the commission to repeal the earlier resolution. “This confusion caused legitimate concern for the citizens.”

Last year, the chairman was approached by the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce with a request. They wanted the word beach on Perdido’s state signage, and had been informed by FDOT that the only way to do that was to have the local governing body designate a locale Perdido Key Beach, which the state would then recognize via signage.

This did not go down well. Channel 3 ran a story, people freaked out.

“Please watch the video of last night’s Public Forum,” Valentino wrote to Fred Garth in an email. “What a joke. Disappointing. The very people I’m trying so hard to help are kicking me in the knees.”

Even the chamber flinched.

“While you lobbied me hard on this, it was clear you wanted this to be my recommendation and not seen as coming from you,” Valentino wrote the Chamber director. “I would have appreciated your support of my efforts on this, rather than ‘ducking for cover.’”

Later, on his back deck, the chairman would be more blunt.

“The Perdido Chamber threw me under the bus, just like my staff did,” Valentino said.

The chairman assured the public that there was no name-change afoot. In emails, he said Channel 3 had misreported the issue—“Channel 3 got it totally wrong not once, not twice, but three times”—and that staff had made a clerical screw-up—“the wording in the agenda caused me this heartburn” and “the typo in the agenda caused a near revolution”—and that the county’s only intent was a backdoor realization of some signage the Chamber had requested.

By mid-March, Valentino was getting testy. After a heated public session, he let it be known he was done talking about the subject.

“There was never any intent on my part or the staffs in renaming Perdido Key. Period,” Valentino addressed the public gallery. “I will not address the issue personally again.”

According to a county statement released on April Fools’ Day, FDOT had been contacted Feb. 18 and told not to act on the commission’s resolution. Later that week, FDOT informed country staff that the department’s map had, since Jan. 26 apparently, listed the island as Perdido Key Beach.

“I think they’re trying to figure out exactly how that came to be,” said Ian Satter, FDOT spokesperson, adding that the designation might just be a “placeholder.”

Satter also said that Escambia’s resolutions—passed or rescinded—were neither here nor there to FDOT. The department bases its actions on a permit package, in draft form at this point, it has received from the county.

“Whatever their resolution is, we’re going to look at the permit package,” Satter explained, adding that FDOT was in the process of reviewing Escambia’s package currently.

In its April Fools’ Day statement, the county made clear it still intended to see a signage change: “In accordance with FDOT policy, Escambia County is proceeding with the goal of obtaining signage on FDOT interstate and secondary roadways that will inform motorists that there is a fourth exit along I-10 within Escambia County that will direct them to beaches located on Perdido Key.”

Coffee with Annie

She waited at the IHOP halfway between Perdido Key and Pensacola. With her, she carried a disc containing DPZ’s pre-revision plans from October—coveted like precious contraband, or an original, Hand-shot-first version of “Star Wars.”

Annie Griffin was a key player in the master plan process. The Perdido Key Association member was instrumental in bringing DPZ to town.

“Gene was very resistant,” she recalled initial efforts to jumpstart the process. “He just didn’t feel the time was right. He had other things going on and he didn’t feel the time was right.”

Griffin said that the county’s planning department staff was supportive of the master plan and bringing DPZ to town. She said they recognized the opportunity.
“Lloyd Kerr told me, ‘This is the time, this is probably the last opportunity you’ll get to realize a big vision,’” Griffin said. “Lloyd went to bat, he really went to bat. He said, ‘If my people have the chance to work with these people, this is going to be a real learning experience.”

The Key resident was shocked when she got a look at the version of Perdido’s master plan that the county was presenting to the planning board. She wasn’t alone.

“People said, ‘Wait, this isn’t what was presented at the charrette,’” Griffin recalled the community’s surprise when the plan was released. “That was the first visual—the DPZ road design was gone, it was the Atkins design.”

Fans of DPZ remember the charrette process fondly. Like a cross between the Summer of Love and a Great Gatsby garden party.

“Oh my gosh, it was so exciting,” Griffin said. “The enthusiasm was so exciting. It was a very creative, exciting time.”

While Valentino eventually got on board with the master plan process, he said he did have some reservations initially. The chairman would have preferred to see the county first tie up loose ends—dealing with the Perdido Key Beach Mouse, a hotel development and resolving issues with the state over the 292 widening project.

“I really didn’t have a problem with the master plan,” Valentino said. “It was the timing that was horrible.”

While DPZ was conferring with the community, Valentino was adamant that the firm not interfere with traffic and design work for the main roadway. Atkins Global had been working that job for years already.

“I wanted to make sure Duany stayed hands-off on the engineering that was already underway,” Valentino said.

Like many residents, Annie was disappointed with the county-mandated revisions to DPZ’s designs. While the official county statement described the termination as a cost-saving measure, she suspected the firm was fired due to the four-lane issue and said she had heard Valentino stepped in to send Duany packing because he found the planner to be “arrogant.”

“He’s got the awards on the wall,” Griffin said. “He can be cocky, he’s brilliant.”

DPZ’s vision ultimately challenged the county’s plans for Perdido Key Drive. It challenged the data the decision had been based on, and stood in contrast philosophically and technically.

“At one point in the charrette,” Griffin recalled an aside with Andres, “he told me, ‘It’s not ethical—putting in that roadway will kill this island.’”

Engineers Will Direct Me

Dropping DPZ will save the county about $16,000 on the firm’s $300,000 contract. But that’s not why the planners were let go. Escambia’s relationship to DPZ was severed because of the firm’s subversive attitude when it came to the four-laning SR 292.

“Unbeknownst to me,” Valentino said, “Larry Newsom fired them when he found out they were in such discussions with citizens.”

Newsom, Escambia’s assistant administrator, was the county’s chief of traffic in 2006 when people began taking a look at widening Perdido Key Drive. The county, along with the Atkins firm, has long worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Transportation to study the project’s necessity and feasibility.

Newsom said DPZ was instructed to collaborate with Atkins in order to make sure everyone was on the same page.

“To make sure what you’re presenting to the people isn’t false hope—can it be done?” he explained. “To make sure there were no items brought forth that didn’t jeopardize seven years worth of work.”

The administrator contends that the existing studies indicate that a four-lane road stretching across Perdido Key is needed. He cites safety and capacity issues, and points out that the road is a hurricane evacuation route.

“But they wanted to present alternatives,” Newsom said.

The administrator feels that it was unethical for DPZ to have cast doubt on existing roadway studies—charging that, for instance, data had been collected at hotspots like the Flora-Bama and was not a true reflection of traffic patterns—and said that even if traffic counts have decreased during lean economic times, the numbers will head north again eventually.

“The traffic will not go away,” Newsom said. “It’s not going to.”

Valentino said he has no preconceived notions about the widening of Perdido Key Drive.

“I have no opinion if it should be two lanes or 20 lanes, the engineers will direct me,” the Chairman said. “I want what’s safe, first and foremost.”

Andres, from Miami

Down in Miami, the folks at DPZ are in a daze. Getting fired is not something the firm is accustomed to.

“It’s very unusual,” Duany said. “We’ve never been fired. This is just completely unusual.”

The planner can only go on Escambia’s termination letter—which did not provide a reason for the firing—and the county’s official, cost-saving statement provided to the press. He’s still referring to the job as “up in the air.”

“Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t know what’s happening,” Duany said. “I wish I could talk to you, it would be great fun, but I just don’t know.”

When informed the firing seemed to be connected to the four-lane controversy, the planner didn’t appear surprised—“I have no doubt that this is true”—and said he considered the Atkins design to be ill-advised.

“Do I think it’s a bad idea?” Duany said, considering the four-lane option. “I’m just trying to calculate if that’s a bad idea or if it’s even in the top 10 bad ideas.”

But what about the charrette process, the community involvement, the realized vision? That was all beautiful, it was Escambia’s politics that blew the DPZ planner’s mind.

“Insofar as the citizens were concerned, superbly,” Duany said recalled the process. “Insofar as the staff goes, superbly. Insofar as government? I have no idea.”

Charging the Gavel

When Perdido Key residents drive into town to address the county commission, their reception by Valentino has not always been encouraging. He has grown weary—dare say, pissed—discussing matters such as the signage/name change issue.

“The guy flies off the handle pretty easy,” said Doug Underhill, Wendy’s husband.

The Perdido recalled how Valentino had declared he would not be commenting on the signage issue anymore. It was exactly the kind of sentiment that drives the Underhills crazy.

“That’s not for him to say—it’s totally Gene, and it’s totally inappropriate,” Underhill said. “He believes that gavel keeps him from hearing the people, but that’s not how it works in a democracy.”

Dissatisfied with the headway being made approaching Valentino, Underhill said disgruntled Perdido residents are now directing their concerns to other commissioners on the board.

“When we speak, we’re not speaking to Gene Valentino,” he said. “We’re speaking to the other members of the board and I believe we have three members who have become embarrassed by Gene’s behavior.”

Underhill mentions Valentino’s narrow victory in his commission race. He mentions his camp has made the rounds to other commissioners’ offices, where the reception was “a little bit chilly, but not so chilly to slam a door in your face.”

“I think people are starting to understand that Gene Valentino is a lame duck,” Underhill said. “He’s not reelect-able.”

The Bingo Syndrome

Griffin can pinpoint the moment of schism between Chairman Valentino and a chunk of his Perdido Key constituents.

“What really brought all this to a head was the bingo controversy,” the PKA member said.

A few years ago, it was discovered that Valentino was attempting to bring gambling—via the Creek Indian tribe—to Perdido Key. There were plans for 500 bingo machines, a four-star hotel within a year, maybe a water park down the road.

“It was absolutely absurd, but Gene was behind it,” Griffin recalled. “He called it a bingo-parlor, but it was going to be adult gaming machines.”

Underhill remembers the bingo episode well.

“That was kind of a game-changing moment for a lot of us out there on the Key,” he said, describing the time as revealing. “Gene Valentino is hell-bent on developing Perdido Key in a way a lion’s share of the people do not want.”

The Key resident views the recent flaps over the master plan, four-laning 292 and the name change as symptoms of what he refers to as Valentino’s “pattern of behavior.”

“He works things in the background and springs them on us and treats them as foregone conclusions,” Underhill said. “It’s just a long pattern of Gene working in the background, and people just trying to figure out what the heck is going on.”

And what is it exactly that Valentino is aiming for? What is his vision?

“A clear mixed-use of commercial and residential,” Valentino explained. “Said differently, we need more jobs.”

The Chairman envisions a Perdido Key that accommodates future growth. An island that strides boldly—but not gaudily—into the future. He understands such accommodations come with inherent risks, but he’s confident they can be circumvented.
“C-1 would allow for tattoo parlors, C-1 would allow for bingo halls, C-1 would allow for used car lots—all of those C-1 uses would be allowed,” Valentino said. “I don’t support that. I couldn’t stop it, but I don’t support that feel, that character, that panache.”

The Chairman is sure future development can be accomplished responsibly. He knows he won’t get everything he’s looking for, and said he’s open to compromises—to a point.

“I take offense to the person that says ‘No growth at all,’” Valentino said. “They’re kidding themselves.”