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The Florida Activist Is 78. The Legal Judgment Against Her Is $4 Million.
Environmental activists fear that Maggy Hurchalla’s case against a rock-mining company could have First Amendment ramifications.
Maggy Hurchalla kayaking near her home in Stuart, Fla., this summer.CreditCreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times
By Patricia Mazzei
Sept. 8, 2019Updated 9:26 a.m. ET
STUART, Fla. — Maggy Hurchalla’s piece of Florida heaven is a patch of pristine Atlantic shore accessible only by boat in St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park. She and her husband nicknamed it the “End of the World” when they first came upon it half a century ago, after paddling south along the barrier island to the water’s end. She still likes to skinny-dip at the beach.
Ms. Hurchalla, 78, could spend her remaining years kayaking here, readily outpacing paddlers less than half her age. Or traveling the country, giving speeches about the legacy of her sister, Janet Reno, the first female attorney general of the United States.
But instead of reveling in her retirement, Ms. Hurchalla, who has devoted her life to protecting the untamed Florida wilderness that she loved, has been fighting a public battle with a rock-mining company — and losing.
ImageMs. Hurchalla was successfully sued by Lake Point Restoration for encouraging Martin County commissioners to back out of a water deal. She had argued that it would destroy wetlands.
Ms. Hurchalla was successfully sued by Lake Point Restoration for encouraging Martin County commissioners to back out of a water deal. She had argued that it would destroy wetlands.CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times
A jury decided last year that Ms. Hurchalla should pay $4.4 million in damages to Lake Point Restoration, a company that has a limestone mining operation in Martin County, along Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Lake Point sued her for interfering with a contract after she emailed Martin County commissioners, urging them to back out of a water deal with the company that had initially been approved as a public-private partnership that could keep polluted water out of a nearby estuary. Ms. Hurchalla argued that she had merely exercised her First Amendment rights.
The legal saga involved secret emails, the ownership of Florida’s fresh water, and the constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government.
Three months ago, a state appeals court upheld the verdict, alarming environmental and free speech organizations that had implored the three-judge panel to consider how profoundly such a precedent could chill citizens’ ability to question their leaders.
Ms. Hurchalla appealed again, this time asking for a hearing before the full Fourth District Court of Appeal. On Friday, the court denied her request. She could still petition the Florida Supreme Court to consider her case.
She does not have the money to pay the judgment. But Ms. Hurchalla does not worry about that.
“What I worry about now,” she said, “is dying before we win.”
She is one of the few remaining voices of a generation that remembers hurricanes before they had names, the last surviving child of a mother who built the family homestead by hand. Her life has spanned much of the state’s modern history, a story of growth inextricable from development.
The sale of 650 acres on the southern tip of Hutchinson Island in 1972 first spurred Ms. Hurchalla into activism. She wanted the land protected for conservation. Instead, a developer bought it and built a gated residential community. Ms. Hurchalla became Martin County’s first female commissioner in 1974, a liberal Democrat in a town of Republicans.
The commission adopted strict protections for wetlands and a four-story height limit for buildings. Growth happened anyway, but slowly and “sanely,” Ms. Hurchalla said, keeping the county green and preserving an Old Florida way of life.
George Lindemann Jr. is the billionaire real estate investor behind the limestone mining operation by Lake Point.CreditTampa Bay Times, via ZUMA Wire
In 1994, she lost re-election to an opponent largely bankrolled by developers. Ms. Hurchalla returned to activism. Even now, she says, “I spend too much time at the computer, trying to save the world.”
That is how she got in trouble with Lake Point, which in 2008 bought 2,200 acres of former sugar cane fields in the western fringes of Martin County, near Lake Okeechobee.
Behind Lake Point was George Lindemann Jr., a billionaire real estate investor and heir to a cellphone and cable TV fortune. He served prison time after being convicted in 1995 of paying a man $25,000 to electrocute his horse so Mr. Lindemann could collect a $250,000 insurance payout.
Mr. Lindemann’s consortium wanted to mine for limestone and use the leftover pits to store lake water and clean its pollution, which would otherwise be flushed down the fragile St. Lucie Estuary, contributing to toxic algae blooms. The South Florida Water Management District and Martin County signed off on the project.
But a few years later, Lake Point partnered with another company to try to sell the water to the city of West Palm Beach, troubling Ms. Hurchalla and Martin County officials, who questioned whether the revised plan would really result in environmental benefits. (West Palm Beach ultimately did not buy Lake Point’s water.)
Ms. Hurchalla fired off emails to county commissioners encouraging them to get out of the agreement with Lake Point, arguing that it would destroy wetlands and noting that no peer-reviewed study had examined the effects on restoration plans for the downstream Florida Everglades, which are supposed to get water from Lake Okeechobee, near the mine site.
She sent some of the emails to commissioners’ private email addresses. She signed one of them “Deep Rock Pit” — a joke, she said later, alluding to Deep Throat, the secret Washington Post source during the Watergate scandal.
County staff members issued notices of violation against Lake Point. Then, the commission canceled the contract.
In 2013, Lake Point sued the county, the water management district and Ms. Hurchalla, claiming she waged an unlawful campaign against the company that cost it its plans to make money off its cleaned lake water.
The court agreed: The litigation found that commissioners conducted public business using their private email and delayed production of those emails — or destroyed them altogether — in violation of public records laws. Three commissioners were charged in criminal court. A jury acquitted one of them in April, and the state attorney dropped the charges against the other two last month.
The county and water management district settled with Lake Point for millions of dollars, and the mine continues to operate. But Ms. Hurchalla fought on, even after Lake Point offered to drop the case if she publicly apologized.
Kayaks outside of Ms. Hurchalla’s home. Sheriff’s deputies seized two kayaks and a Toyota Camry when a jury decided last year that Ms. Hurchalla should pay $4.4 million in damages.CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times
She had nothing apologize for, she said: She had engaged her elected leaders. But Lake Point accused her of improperly instructing commissioners through the private emails — and of falsely claiming that the wetlands would be harmed (they were not, the company said) and that no scientific studies had been done (a preliminary review had been conducted). That amounted to malice, the court ruled.
“The First Amendment’s very important, but it has its limits,” said Ethan J. Loeb, the lead lawyer for Lake Point. “You’re not allowed to tell falsehoods. You’re not allowed to lie. That’s not anything that’s new or exotic. And if, in fact, you do not tell the truth, and those falsehoods were designed to injure or harm a business, there’s a consequence for that.”
Any wages Ms. Hurchalla makes are subject to garnishment. One of her husband Jim’s retirement accounts was taken over. After the jury ruled against her last year, sheriff’s deputies seized what they could of Ms. Hurchalla’s property: two kayaks and a 2004 Toyota Camry — with a faded “Defend Maggy” bumper sticker — that had been owned by her sister.
Lake Point later returned the kayaks and the car. But first, Ms. Hurchalla’s neighbors dropped off other kayaks at her home in solidarity.
“Thank you for standing up for our First Amendment rights,” read a handwritten note they left behind.
Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who filed amicus briefs on behalf of advocacy groups as part of Ms. Hurchalla’s appeal, said he had already heard from other activists who feared that the ruling might hamper their ability to criticize the government.
“I’ve had several clients contact me with deep concern about whether and what they can say about environmental issues,” he said. “Florida is battling global warming and sea-level rise and the loss of biodiversity, so we cannot afford to be quiet.”
Ms. Hurchalla, as is her style, put it more bluntly: “I don’t think anybody could safely stand at a podium in the state of Florida.”
One evening in July, Ms. Hurchalla, barefoot, with a knife cut on her finger bandaged with duct tape, contemplated the recent events from the screened porch of the home she and Jim built in 1968 after buying a $5,000 lot on the banks of the Indian River. They raised four children there. Two adult grandchildren live nearby.
Her breast cancer is in remission, but she has suffered since 1992 from an autoimmune disorder that requires monthly intravenous transfusions of antibodies.
“I did not expect to be alive at 78,” said Ms. Hurchalla, whose sister died of complications from Parkinson’s disease at 78.
But Ms. Hurchalla did not dwell on what was to come. Instead, she looked around in wonder. Past the mangroves, mullet jumped in the river.
“Look at what the world has done for me,” she said.
She served crackers and smoked fish dip from barracuda that Jim had caught the night before. Then she planned the next day’s paddle, checking on the high tide.
Indian River Lagoon Feasibility Study
Maggy Hurchalla’s family moved to Miami in the 1920s, just in time for the 1926 Hurricane-a wall of water and wind that humbled Florida’s boom-time settlers. Ms. Hurchalla grew up in Dade County in the 1940s, when hurricanes crisscrossed South Florida at a rate never seen before or since. Growing up in those tempestuous times next to a 20-acre cow pasture that was sometimes all wet and sometimes all dry made it easy for her to understand that Florida’s wetlands are dynamic.Ms. Hurchalla became a county commissioner in 1974 in South Florida’s Martin County, where development had not yet bulldozed the wilderness. She served as commissioner for 20 years through tumultuous battles over growth and environment. When isolated wetlands were not protected by state or federal agencies, Ms. Hurchalla transformed Martin County into a national leader for wetland protection. She recognized that no wetland in Florida is truly isolated, and that the mosaic of small and seemingly disconnected sloughs are as important to Florida’s water supply and wildlife as the more attention-attracting Everglades.When the largest environmental restoration ever attempted began to take shape through the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Ms. Hurchalla played a major role, serving on the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida and helping to resolve critical issues over wetlands. She also incorporated her knowledge of county governance and of the federal restoration plan as part of a team that designed the first critical component of the plan for the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie Estuary. The design shows concretely that restoring wetlands is essential for ecosystem restoration and that environmentalists and the federal government can be partners in effective restoration.— Donna Melzer, Martin County Conservation Alliance, Stuart, Florida
History from Maggy Hurchalla
Maggy Hurchalla's message on history and preserving rural lands for agricultural uses.
HOPE and HISTORY
There is this myth that once upon a time everyone was polite and that all the commissioners and developers loved the environment and protected our quality of life. I was there. I can tell you that that is hogwash.
During most of the 20 years I was a county commissioner, the battles were vicious and the majority of commissioners were pro development.
So why is Martin County different?
We are different because of all those folks who have continued to insist that we keep Martin a good place to live.
Planners and consultants and commissioners didn’t give us a great comprehensive plan. The hopeful and stubborn people of Martin County did. They insisted on a Growth Management Plan which is strict enough and specific enough that even bad guys could not easily give away the county’s future.
We made developers and commissioners follow the rules to keep Martin County special. We can do it again.
82% of residents say they want to slow growth.
No increase in density in rural areas.
Protection for existing neighborhoods.
Make the rules clear and follow the rules. Most important, listen to what Martin County residents want.
WHAT’S BEST - clustering or keep the 1 unit in 20 acre land use for rural lands?
Is it true that the worst possible scenario for the rural lands from I-95 to Lake Okeechobee is to keep the Comp Plan policy of 20 acre lot sizes?
No. It takes no planning expertise at all to know that 10 acre lots, 5 acre lots and 1 acre lots would have more negative impacts on the environment, on traffic, on taxes and on county services. Even if the entire rural area developed into 20 acre lots, it would be 10,000 max, and this is highly unlikely since some folks will want to stay in agriculture. If we keep the 20 acres, there is less incentive for agricultural to sell out. If we change it, they’ll cash in for big development and agriculture will be gone in Martin County. Other land will be preserved by the Everglades Restoration plan. Note that Indiantown already has its own urban service area with commercial and small lots.
What about the services that the 20 acre lots will require?
All development requires some services. But there will be alot less people and much less services than if you allow additional urban-type cities. The people living in the western area will be serviced by Indiantown which already has schools, a library, government offices, and 2 fire stations with another volunteer station on SR 714. There are already school bus routes covering the major highways in the western area. Indiantown will continue to grow and provide more services.
Is it true that the state will force us to have higher density in our urban area unless we permit development in the rural area outside our Urban Service District?
No. It is not true that the state will force us to pile people up inside the Urban Boundary. Regardless of whether development is expanded into the rural area, developers will continue to ask for even higher density. Feeding one ogre doesn’t stop the other ogres from wanting more.
How about clustering? Would this save most of the rural area and concentrate development in clusters?
We have ‘clustering’ in the urban service district. We put urban development in town and leave the rural areas rural. Developers are asking for the right to put urban development anywhere. Developers stated that in order to cluster they must be given four times as much density as what they currently have a right to. That amounts to 40,000 units outside the current urban boundary instead of just the 10,000 you might have with 20 acre lots. Clustering around golf courses and man-made lakes does nothing to save more environment. What would ensure that land that was supposedly set aside for preservation remain that way?
Clustering requires water, sewer and other urban services. Once these services are in place, adjacent undeveloped land will ask for (and get) higher densities because the services are there and the urban use pattern is established. Once we allow development in the rural area for one developer, how can we legally stop the others developers from building more clusters?
Is the clustered pattern of development worse than 20 acre lots?
Yes. Imagine 40,000+ homes instead of 10,000 max. Imagine dozens of gated golf course communities with a convenience store/gas station on the highway. Imagine dozens of little sewer plants that don’t work very well. The developer would build lots of lakes to sell the fill. The cluster would be too small to warrant a school or supermarket so the commuting traffic to town would be awful. Each area would demand a fire station with EMTs staffed 24 hours a day that would get very few calls, but the rest of the county would pay for them.