|Marco Island in 1964 (left) and present day (Michael Coleman)|
Forty years ago, the consensus of the state and federal governments was that Marco Island should not have been built at all. The community was the setting for one of the biggest development controversies in the United States and nearly ruined one of Florida’s largest and most celebrated developers. In a region with a notorious building addiction, it became the site of the environmental movement’s greatest victory over the Florida growth machine. Ecological foresight halted millions of dollars in real estate development and all but ended an engineering technique that had turned the South Florida coast from swampland to resort.
When brothers Robert, Elliott, and Frank Mackle discovered Marco in the early 1960s, half of its 10 square miles consisted of mangrove swamps. Home to just a few hundred people and an abandoned clam factory, it was the single largest undeveloped barrier island property in South Florida.
The plan called for 35,000 residential units, which would require displacing 18.2 million cubic yards of ground (more than 150,000 dump trucks’ worth), dredging the land into channels, and using the dredge to create development sites in the swamp. This method is common across South Florida; Cape Coral, a little to the north, is a good example. Still, at the time, Marco Island was the largest “finger-fill” waterfront housing project to ever come before the Army Corps of Engineers, Science reported in 1976.
|Deltona's "finger-fill" development used dredging to transform swampland into canal-side residential plots|
(Flip Schulke/US National Archives and Records Administration)
Since each Army Corps permit lasted just three years, the brothers split the project into five phases. A sales campaign brought 25,000 people to Marco on “sponsored visits” for which Deltona footed the bill. By 1971, Deltona had sold 11,000 lots—most before they even existed. It was a literal version of the old Florida joke about land sold by the gallon. Marco’s appeal was sold on the back of the very land it would destroy. “Cast up close to the mangroves, grass beds, and oyster bars,” the brochures read. “That’s where the fish are.”
The environmental policy revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s thwarted the Mackles’ plans. First, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring biological impact studies for all dredge-and-fill projects. Second, the Army Corps agreed to consult with the secretary of the interior before approving permits for controversial projects. Third, the Army Corps denied a permit to fill in 11 acres of Boca Ciega Bay, near Tampa, to build a trailer park, in a closely watched case that was upheld in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And finally, in 1975, the Army Corps published a rule that wetlands should not be sacrificed for uses that were not either water-dependent (i.e., a dock) or required by the public interest.
The final phases of Marco Island—creating 4,000 lots on reclaimed land in Barfield Bay and Big Key—did not meet that standard, the corps ruled in 1975. Deltona sued, arguing the ruling constituted a taking of their property rights. After half a decade, its appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court, and the company ultimately agreed to a land trade with the state of Florida.
It took years for the Mackles to settle with the buyers of lots that were never built, costing the developers an inflation-adjusted quarter billion dollars. They had to sell their beloved beachfront hotel to Marriott and ultimately stopped building homes. The remaining Mackle family members sold the company to out-of-state investors in 1985 and left their roles there a few years later. East of developed Marco Island lie great swaths of mangroves, which in addition to their role in marine ecosystems are also excellent protectors from storm surges. If you can find one, a mangrove creek is still the best place to keep a small boat in a hurricane.
Florida, of course, did not stop building. Developers never lost control over state and local politics. “The problem is that the Florida economy is driven by real estate and tourism,” says Jeff Goodell, the author of The Water Will Come, a book about cities and rising sea levels. “There’s no sales tax, so these cities and counties are hugely dependent on property tax. The only way to raise money to pay for city services and defenses against flooding is by building more.”