Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Achiever: Maggy Hurchalla … by gimleteye

This is the second and final part of our interview with our first 2015 "Achiever": Maggy Hurchalla. Part One appeared yesterday and can be found at this link. We interviewed Maggy at the Reno family home in Kendall, the home where four siblings were raised beginning in 1947. A brother, Mark, was a Miami-Dade court bailiff and extraordinary outdoorsman. Bob was a financial columnist for Newsday. Maggy's sister, Janet, is the former state attorney in Miami-Dade and then attorney general of the United States under President Bill Clinton. Maggy visits Miami frequently to be with her sister and family here. She is a former four-term county commissioner in Martin County, a recent inductee of the Everglades Coalition Hall of Fame, and a real achiever.

EOM: Out here in the wilds of what is now Kendall -- a sprawling metropolis of nearly 300,000 residents today -- the Renos were pioneers.

MH: We were a very close family. Mom and dad passed: daddy in late 1960's and mom died at 79 years old right after Hurricane Andrew. She was born in 1913.

EOM: How did you get involved with land use issues in Martin County?

MH: My husband, Jim, and I moved to Martin County in 1968. We bought a lot looking out at the waterway for $5,000. One day we were heading out the St. Lucie Inlet to go fishing, and there was a rainbow touching on either side. On one side, the rainbow touched the St. Lucie Seashore Park. Where the rainbow touched on the other side of the inlet, there was a "for sale" sign. 640 acres. At that point in time it would have zoned for 15 units per acre. Most of it was mangrove swamp. So I went home and found it was half owned by Harvard Medical School. I happened to have some friends there and embarrassed Harvard. "You can't build in pristine mangroves!" In the end I discovered that if you pull every string and press every button you have a chance, but if you just go home and cry, nothing happens.

EOM: So you became an environmentalist, but it is not exactly as though you had just fallen off a log and discovered how beautiful Florida was.

MH: In the process of being a mother with four children, the local Audubon group found me. We had a great Audubon chapter in Martin County at the time. We have an environmental hall of fame, and those first soldiers were early retirees, well-to-do, who loved to fish and who came when it was relatively empty. They didn't live in McMansions, they didn't have 70 foot yachts. They had nice boats, but they were for fishing. They were former Wall Street people and they were very effective.

EOM: At the time, Martin County must have felt a little bit like your childhood?

MH: Yes. In 1968 Martin County felt like Miami in 1940. We couldn't afford a laundry machine. I saw a land crab walking across the laundromat floor in downtown Stuart, and at that moment I said, "Home!" One day, coming down A1A to pick up kids from school, there was a rattlesnake in the middle of the road so I stopped on the shoulder, grabbed axe out of my trunk, and as I was raking it off to the side an old fisherman with no teeth pulls up. He says, "What you doin?" I said, "I need a snakeskin and we are going to fry it." The fisherman says, "What's it taste like?" I answered, "Not as gamey as water moccasin."

EOM: Tell us a snake story that is about politicians.

MH: One more real snake story. Right after we moved into our house in Stuart, we were all sitting on the porch. Mom was visiting. I had her first four grandchildren, all under the age of six at the time. A fisherman put-puts right up within hearing distance. "Rattlesnake coming ashore!" he yells. Well I didn't want a resident rattler. When that snake came ashore I held it down with the rake and my dear mother chopped off its head with the axe. She fried it for us in beer batter. I saw more snakes in Stuart than I ever did in Miami. The only poisonous snake I ever knew in Kendall killed our dog following the big hurricane in 1947. Never caught the snake but poor old Liza had fang marks on either side of her head.

EOM: So how did you get into politics?

MH: Back then, in the early 1970s, my hero was a county commissioner named Paul Eugene Powers. Everyone called him, Timer. Timer had a way with people. He could get along with anybody and had a combination of decency and smarts and he was good with people. That is really, really rare. He got on commission when he was 28 years old, and he was on for two or three terms. Timer worked with the conservation alliance in Martin County which were heroes of the environmental hall of fame. He also worked independently with really basic things, like having subdivision regulations. He stopped the dredging of canals to create waterfront and drain the back country.

EOM: Sounds like what passes for heresy in Florida.

MH: He got the four story height limitation. In 1972, when I was a member of the audience, he got passed an ordinance that you couldn't clear a piece of land before you got a development approval. That was revolutionary.

Timer created something called the water board. Between Timer and Ed Geary, a local dentist who had been appointed to the county commission to fill the term of a commissioner who went to jail, I got appointed to the water board. That was when mangrove swamps were still being turned into bulkheaded condo sites and we were just learning that canals and overdrainage was causing salt water to seep into our drinking water wells. At the time Gerald Lewis was my sister, Janny's, law partner and a state representative. I told him I would make him an expert on water, because I was reading every one of those Army Corps of Engineers volumes on raising and extending the dike holding Lake Okeechobee. Each one was like a step to damnation. Back then, the Lake was kept at 15 foot elevation. The state asked Congress to direct the Corps to raise the dike in order to provide more water for Miami-Dade and expanding sugar farms south of the Lake. It wasn't about Miami-Dade. It was all about Big Sugar. The Game and Fish Commission at the time did a great study, showing the harm that would be done to the estuaries and to the marshes that make Lake Okeechobee a living lake. No one paid any attention. We wouldn't be in such a disastrous situation today if the Corps and the politicians had listened to the Game Commission.

EOM: So I take it, the developers didn't like you much on the water board?

MH: Well I had three or four other amiable people on the board and we found ways to do thing to make environmental protection, stick. I remember one engineer, Lenny Lendall, brought in a plan for building five canals off the Loxahatchee River. We said, "no way." The next meeting he comes back with a proposal for four canals, and the meeting after that for three. At the end of this process he comes up to me and says, "Maggy, you're destroying my marriage. I'm having nightmares at night and shouting your name. My wife thinks I'm having an affair."

EOM: You were effective.

MH: In Martin County, we would draft a rule. We didn't know anything about rules, but we were very much ahead of our time with mangrove protection. The South Florida Water Management District took our rules in Martin as a starting point for their own.

EOM: So how did you get onto the Martin County Commission?

MH: My first race was in 1974. Ed Geary first announced he wasn't running, and I would never have run against him because he appointed me to the water board and was an environmentalist, at least he was at the beginning. But then some developers got ahold of him and said, no way we can have Maggy Hurchalla as a county commissioner, so he jumped back in the primary. I beat him and then won the general election. There were 30,000 people in Martin County then. I campaigned against the developers: "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." The guy running as a Republican ran an ad ' If Maggy Hurchalla is elected, another nail will never be driven in Martin County.' I was 34 years old. My mother looked at my campaign poster and said, "That will look fine if your constituents want a 12 year old commissioner."

EOM: Sounds like you enjoyed running for office.

MH: I had a self-imposed campaign contribution limit of of $100 dollars. I did not take money from anyone with business before the county commisison even if I liked them and were friends. Most I ever raised for an election was $30,000. My opponents always outspent me two or three times to one.

EOM: So you were on the county commission starting, when?

1974. We baked chocolate chip cookies and handed them out at flea markets and generally had a good time. I had a fantatstic support group. No computers. Everything addressed in real handwriting and stamped by hand. I didn't do signs. In 1980, a Martin County developer, Bill Watson, spent over $100K and brought in President Reagan's pollster. They did focus groups around Martin County to find out what they needed to do to beat me. What they didn't figure in that Martin County is a small place. The focus group participants would come home and call me up and tell me everything. So the consultant asks a friend, "What would Maggy have to to do, for you to vote against her?" She answered, "She'd have to die."

I served 5 terms. Twenty years on the county commission. Lost in 1994. We had a $14 million sick court house and someone needed to be blamed. It didn't matter that I was the one who voted against the courthouse in the first place.

EOM: How did the politics change, Maggy?

MH: There was attrition, but there was also a significant shift in the electorate. My first election I won with 60 percent of vote as a Democrat. The folks who came to Stuart to retire were lifelong Republicans. We went from 2/3's registered Democrats to 2/3's registered Republicans in just a few years. Newcomers to Florida are more likely to vote a straight party ticket. Take a look at Amendment 1 versus state political races. Then too the vast majority of Floridians think of themselves as environmentalist, but when it comes to voting for political office they don't vote on that issue. (EOM note: Amendment 1 passed by 78% of the popular vote in the Nov. 2014 election and will provide a "secure" source of funding through real estate transactions for environmental purposes, although the state legislature is now fiddling with what that means, exactly, with many special interest groups lining up to make sure their hand is in the till.)

I have always said that we got Lucky in Martin County. Not that we were so brave. Back in the 1970's we were relatively undeveloped. Lawsuits in Miami-Dade had allowed for a tremendous no-holds barred growth of development in wetlands. Miami-Dade County tried to fight in the courts on what constitutes "highest and best use". In the fifties, the courts sided with the developers and farmers every time. If a high rise condo was deemed the highest and best use, that's what got built. If it was a subdivision, well just look at Kendall Drive. There's the story: they won and we all lost and lost and lost on the issues of quality of life and the environment.

EOM: And yet you prevailed in Martin County.

MH: In the late 1960s, there were some really important legal precedents -- not just in Florida but in states like Wisconsin -- that began to give strength to those of us who wanted the environmental resources of a place to be considered in the evaluation of "highest and best use". In Martin County, we were on the front lines with those legal precedents in hand and we didn't give an inch. The County defended its strict environmental policies in court. On wetlands protection our local circuit jusdge ruled "Not only are the wetland protection policies fairly debatable, I can't imagine a fair person debating them."

EOM: So what is your take on our current politics in Tallahassee?

MH: I am not a Tallahassee expert. I'm an alternating skeptic and an optimist. You hope that your leadership is better than the year before and you see what happens. It's not going to get you anywhere going in thinking its hopeless.

EOM: What's your proudest accomplishment as a county commissioner and environmentalist?

MH: Things I'm proudest of, the Martin County 1982 Comprehensive Plan that says "all wetlands shall be protected". Back then, I had an argument with the environmentalists who wanted to "rate wetlands" as a kind of compromise with developers who would say, "this or that wetland is incredibly stressed, and it's not as valuable as another piece of wetland over there, etc. etc." I said, no. All wetlands are protected. Period. Well we survived an expensive court battle, and no one has tried to undo it: all wetlands in Martin County are protected. No matter how tired or small. In Martin County we require mitigation - water tables have to be restored and buffers are required. We do NOT trade wetlands for mitigation and allow destruction in return for making improvements on what's left. That kind of "mitigation" a recipe for for a continuing net loss of wetlands.

When we did the Comp Plan I learned, never use the word "should". Always use the word, "shall". Always put exemptions in the law. Don't rely on wishy washy words like "in the public interest" because once you start debating with the developers, you will always lose. I believe there has to be a safety net for the environment.

EOM: And Florida's environmental movement; don't the environmentalists provide a safety net?

MH: It's happily mythological that we are organized. Some times we seem all together. We are all those things we approve of being, which makes it very difficult to be on the same team and same side at the same time. On the other side you have the consultants and lobbyists and engineers who are exceedingly well organized and funded by developers and polluters and industry associations. A long time ago, I discovered while talking to consultants something startling: they hate the public. Even the rather, relatively decent and nerdish consultants absolutely hate the public, believe the public is irrational, angry, rude terrible etc and etc. Gosh, I never knew we made that strong an impression. We are all excited and concerned, and the other side sits there smugly with all the time in the world.

EOM: The money always has one purpose: to make more money. Environmentalists aren't so unified.

MH: You always need some people throwing rocks in the movement. If you don't, the opposition will always say, "they didn't hear you". I've watched many meetings where the crowd is boisterous and angry and the chairman says, no applause or we'll have to clear the room. Decorum! ... so then the developers and lobbyists get their hour long presentation. And then the commission will ask for one representative for the environmentalists to speak for all because there are so many in the audience, and they get only three minutes. A year or two years later, the dust will have settled. The mangroves filled or seaside condo built. Something predictably bad will have happened, and then the elected officials will say, "Gee, we didn't hear you." A certain amount of righteous indignation is necessary or you don't get there.

EOM: Often it seems that environmentalists who do gain power and access, mainly do so because they are willing to cut deals and sometimes those deals are bad deals.

MH: Deal making is a tricky business. He who lives by he sword dies by the sword... if you try to do things by incentives, and the minute you have a bad majority, you can be flexibly bad as you can be flexibly good. For example I'm totally convinced New Urbanism is a total failure in Florida. I used to be more polite about it, but New Urbanism turned into a tool for developers to do whatever they want. Planning shouldn't be based on incentives it should be based on law. It's become a mish-mash, a game of meeting minimum standards.

One of the advantages in being old is having a frame of reference. These days so few people get to know people. There isn't time. People are in cars driving all over the state. Conference calls aren't a satisfactory way to build bridges. When you have been at it a long time -- now we have so many people coming in and out -- then at least you know who you can trust. Sometimes you can't trust a person to be honest, but you can trust them to do what they say. You can't do that anymore because there is no time to get to know the other person well enough.

EOM: You know, we've been very impressed with the newspaper coverage of the pollution of the St. Lucie and Indian River Lagoon. We don't have anything like that in Miami other than this blog.

MH: That's an interesting thing. Only this year, Scripps Howard discovered the environment paid. They put their best reporters on the pollution story, and it was a good business move. Eve Samples is honest, bright and interested. There have been times between Ernie Lyon and now, when the Stuart News was most interested in protecting advertisers. The paper endorsed me only once in six times I ran for office, and that was only because they had hired a journalism professor once who actually dug into the issues. Let me tell you about Ernie Lyon. What you had back then in the early 1970s, Ernie Lyon was an editor and not just some cracker writer. The guy was brilliant. He read every book in the library when he was a kid. He walked and fished and hiked every nook and cranny of Martin County and he knew how to make other people love the wilderness without using all the big words and technicalities that turn people away from us.

EOM: And what about Miami?

MH: I guess I didn't keep up with Miami much. I'm down here quite a bit now for family health issues, but I missed part of the 1990's when Janny was in Washington. Miami is not inspiring, but I will tell you that I admired that first Hold The Line Campaign (in Miami-Dade, to protect the Urban Development Boundary in the early 2000's).

EOM: Maggy, thank you so much for this interview. Please give our readers one lasting memory of Miami when you loved the place.

MH: High school slumber parties on the beach at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. 1955. There was a little narrow gauge railroad that ran around a little zoo. So the lion would be roaring at dawn with giggling girls skinny dipping in the ocean. How's that?


Anonymous said...

Thanks, great interview. And thanks to Maggy for a lifetime of work.

Anonymous said...

Amazing interview of an amazing woman. Excellent choice for achiever. Thanks EOM, and much deep gratitude to Maggy. I wish we could clone her a thousand times!

Anonymous said...

What a great woman and great interview! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

From Capt. Franklin Adams:

Thanks for sending this great interview with Maggie. Incredible family.

Having been born in Miami (pronounced Miamuh by the older natives), it certainly brings back fond memories. Still have vivid memories of the 1947 hurricane and the extensive flooding. In many areas, the wildlife had no dry place to go, so they were forced to the middle of the roads in south Dade as that was the highest ground. My Dad had a elderly friend that lived in the Florida City area and he went down there after the storm to check on Fritz. Dad drove slowly down the lime rock farm road in his Dodge recon "car" with the big airplane tires on it. As we approached, deer, bobcats, coons, rabbits all of which were forced to seek refuge on the road crown slowly walked or swam out of our path.

As we passed they just stood or floated until we passed and then moved back to the only dry ground available. I remember that it was a sad sight to witness. Dad's friend was OK, we took a different route back as my Dad did not want to stress the wildlife by passing that way again.

When the national park ran the fisherman out of Flamingo, they hired my Dad to survey their properties. Remember that slippery old gray marl road to Flamingo well. During the Summer water would flow across the road in some low areas and as a kid I was fascinated by the fish swimming across the road and the wading birds waiting to grab them.

Since the road was so difficult to navigate my father struck a deal with the commercial fisherman ( House family) , he and his survey crew were put up and fed 5 days a week and then went home to Miami on Saturday mornings so they did not have to make that long ,slippery trek each day. I was fortunate enough to come and stay for a week that Summer at Flamingo. Ate lots of fried mullet, salt pork and beans and grits .Skeeters were so bad that my Dad had a hard time keeping employees down there. It was an unforgettable experience for a young person.

Anonymous said...

Great interview subject. Great stories. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great words of old time, Florida Wisdom from both Maggie and Franklin Adams! Thanks for the great interview. Shows that we can make a difference and need to keep fighting for the environment. Hold the line and keep fighting!