Tampa, Florida; Jan. 12, 2005 – The planned construction of a biotechnology institute on environmentally sensitive land has been indefinitely blocked by community protest, and fighting between local governments is revealing possible corruption in one of Floridaâ€™s wealthiest counties.
The Scripps Research Institute, a federally funded biomedical lab based in La Jolla, California, began shopping for a location to expand in 2003. They were shown around Palm Beach County, Florida by the local Business Development Board (BDB), and negotiated with the county government to build a 364,000-square-foot facility on Mecca Farms, a property currently scattered with wetlands on the edge of the Everglades.
Immediately, legal challenges began to pile up, and although some conflicts regarding water permits have been resolved, suits related to the re-zoning of a wild life refuge and violations of the stateâ€™s growth management act are still pending. Additionally, a former state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employee, Herb Zebuth swore under oath during a court challenge filed by environmentalists that he and co-workers were warned by a supervisor that anyone interfering with the approval of Scripps site "would receive the harshest possible disciplinary action, and that means, in my opinion, getting fired." DEP officials deny the allegation.
Steven Bell, with the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, said the site is "completely surrounded by the last of our remaining state and county wild lands, which are also our aquifers and our water retention areas for our water supply." Manly Fuller, executive director of the of the Florida Wildlife Federation, added that the infrastructure related to building Scripps, including roads, power lines and services for employees would be like "putting a city" where now there is nothing but nature on the shores of the Loxahatchee River.
Scripps poses itself as a nonprofit organization, but it also collects data that is sold to research and pharmaceutical companies that profit from them.
On January 3, 2005, a group of 50 people emerged from a weeklong campout and activist training in the woods and staged a protest outside the offices of the Palm Beach County BDB. Several protestors went inside, throwing rotten fruit and sawdust on the floor of the offices, and nine people were arrested.
Cara Jennings, who was involved in the protest, said the group has objections beyond the environmental sensitivity of the Mecca farms site. "We donâ€™t want Scripps in Florida or California, or anywhere," said Jennings. "We donâ€™t want scientists [to be] allowed to patent genes, or patent components of nature or life which theyâ€™ve been doing. We donâ€™t support bio-piracy, which allows scientists and research groups to take some of the traditional ways of people living in jungles and in the Amazon and all over the world and [allows] them to patent traditional medicinal cures off of them."
The research facility is being seeded with more than $500 million in county and state money. As Jennings pointed out, Scripps "poses" as a nonprofit organization primarily funded by grants from the National Institute of Health and other federal agencies, but it also collects data that is sold to research and pharmaceutical companies that profit from them. Jenningsâ€™ group does not believe "public funds should support the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies," she said.
The scheduled January groundbreaking on The Mecca site has been postponed, to the dismay of Governor Jeb Bush, who called the environmentally minded local citizens concerned about sprawl, pollution and the irreparable damage to the 1,920 acres of land "legal terrorists." Bush said he was upset when the Palm Beach County Commission voted not to begin the project, and now an April deadline is looming, beyond which Scripps can back out on the contract to build in Palm Beach County if the project is not already underway.
The Palm Beach County Commission proposed two alternate sites in August, both of which are already being developed to some degree, but neither Gov. Bush nor the Palm Beach BDB have indicated they are willing abandon plans for Mecca Farms. Some speculate that a deal between the Economic Development Research Institute (EDRI), which is a newly created nonprofit offshoot of the BDB, and a pair of home builders may have something to do with the BDBâ€™s eagerness to develop Mecca Farms. The Institute plans to sell nearly 2,000 acres adjacent to Mecca Farms to the Lennar Corporation and Centex Homes for $102 million. With the help of the EDRI, those developers will turn it into a "scientific village" of 7,500 homes, shops, restaurants, offices and research and development space.
Since December, several city and county and government officials from across the state have publicly declared they would welcome Scripps, causing friction between Palm Beach County and other localities. When Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe volunteered to work out a plan to lure Scripps to his county should the Palm Beach deal not work out, Palm Beach BDB president Larry Pelton retaliated with a letter to the Tampa Tribune accusing the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners and reproaching the Tribune for mounting an "initiative to steal" Scripps. In the same letter, Pelton announced a "Raid Hillsborough's Business Sector" campaign as retribution.
BDB President Pelton resigned in mid-December, and the Tribune has called for the State Attorney general to investigate whether the governor and the BDB worked to illegally or unethically push the Mecca Farms site from the beginning, as other sites throughout Florida were never seriously considered. Scripps and the Business Development Board say they still plan to have construction finished before the end of 2006, but the state Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee plans to hold hearings later this week; and may issue their own deadline to Palm Beach County, in order to make sure the research institute does not decide to give up on Florida altogether.