Wright or wrong

Standing at the podium, attorney Ken Wright looks perturbed. The project he and his client had thought was a done deal is instead struggling. "You can understand our frustration," he says.

Wright's client, NW Oregon Inc., is asking the Seminole County Commission to rezone 32 acres of wetlands and dense forest it owns near I-4 and State Road 46 into commercial property. Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter there.

Residents, about 150 of whom spill over outside of the crowded commission chamber, want no part of it. The influx of low-paying jobs, they say, doesn't justify the increased traffic or environmental damage that will accompany the retail giant's presence. Even the county staff took a stand against it, on grounds that the Wal-Mart would be incompatible, with a gulf of green space between where the store will be and the nearest development.

Not a problem, Wright counters in one of the hearing's more telling exchanges. Just bulldoze that green space, otherwise slated for conservation, and build an apartment complex, he suggests -- "if we want to pay for mitigation."

Unswayed, the commision unanimously voted the proposal down. But as residents celebrated their victory that January evening, they couldn't know the irony that lay ahead: Ken Wright, who stood before the commission directly opposed to their desires, is now the man tapped by Gov. Jeb Bush to represent them in drafting environmental policy for all of Florida.

Wright has not yet been approved to lead the Environmental Regulation Committee (ERC), whose decisions help to direct the state's Department of Environmental Protection. That could happen as soon as next week, an action that has caused watchdog groups to raise the volume on their protests over the Orlando attorney's appointment.

Basically, they find it the height of hypocrisy to put Wright, who has argued on behalf of developers' interests time and again, in charge of a panel that drafts standards for Florida's environmental policies -- from pollution and wetland delineation to Everglades protection and landfill lining.

Given that role, the Legislature created the ERC with an eye toward balance. On the one hand, it didn't want environmentalists to shut down all future development; on the other, it didn't want developers to run roughshod. Thus, the ERC comprises seven members, with five representing agriculture, development, local government, science and environmental concerns, as well as two lay persons.

What irks a great many is not that Bush chose Wright to serve on the board, but rather that Wright -- who did not return phone calls to answer criticisms for this article -- was appointed to fill one of the latter seats.

"The appointment of Ken Wright to serve as lay person is an insult to the public," says Dick Batchelor, who served from 1994-99 as ERC chairman following his appointment by Gov. Lawton Chiles to the environmentalist's seat.

Some critics go further. "It's clearly a payback for services rendered," says Brian Hinman, chairman of the local Sierra Club. Wright helped organize fund-raisers for the Bush campaign in Central Florida, and himself gave the maximum $500 contribution allowable to then-candidate Bush.

Former congressman Lew Frey worked with Wright on Bush's campaigns and sees the situation a bit differently. "You don't appoint somebody because they worked for you, but you get to know them," he says. "If they're a good worker and you get to know them, there's nothing wrong with appointing them."

Yet given his background as an attorney representing developers' interest, can Wright represent the interests of ordinary citizens without bias?

In the past year alone, Wright has gone before the St. Johns Water Management District (SJWMD) about 10 times -- and never as an environmental advocate, says permit reviewer Anthony Miller. Wright's dealings with SJWMD have included occasions when one of his clients has violated district rules or otherwise sought a permit to build in areas that may harm Florida's water supply.

To Miller, the most memorable of these is the case of Warlick Development Company Inc. Warlick wanted to construct a 6.6-acre "borrow pit" on 40 acres it owned in Orange County. But Warlick couldn't seem to stay within the law in its construction. "There were serious violations," Miller says.

In March 1999, SJWMD caught the company starting work without the necessary permits and without installing erosion and sediment controls: Warlick was ordered to cease and desist. Six days later, a follow-up inspection found that construction had not ceased; moreover, Warlick was also illegally depositing sediment into wetland areas.

This pattern continued for months, according to SJWMD records. Inspectors would find violations, and Warlick would continue its work. Finally, last August, SJWMD took Warlick to court, winning a $75,000 settlement. Additionally, Warlick was ordered to clean up the mess it made over the previous six months.

All the while, Wright was its representative.

The Sierra Club also cites Wright's representation of CFG Real Estate, which has pushed for high-density development within the Wekiva River Protection Area, "contrary to the legislative intent of the Wekiva River Protection Act."

Wright's work for his clients doesn't disqualify him from the position. Nor does his previous part ownership of a real-estate development company called Environmental Land Acquisitions Inc. In fact, with full knowledge of his background, the Senate's Natural Resources Committee still backed his appointment by a vote of 7-1. Wright previously told the Orlando Sentinel his background brings a much-needed view. "The challenge I have," he says, "is to make sure I bring a perspective to my post, not a bias."

But aside from ideological differences, Wright also has a personal stake in at least one issue that could come before the ERC or the state Department of Environmental Protection during his term.

In addition to his legal work, Wright is also chairman of the Sanford Airport Authority. Expansion of that airport will require the set-aside of wetlands to compensate for those that will be destroyed; in this instance, the airport has offered to buy 28.4 acres in exchange for 5.75 acres in the path of its planned growth. Before that can happen, the airport's development application will be reviewed by, among others, the DEP.

Furthermore, critics charge that Wright, as chairman of the ERC, would be in a position to ease wetland requirements, and thereby possibly make it easier both for himself, as chairman of the airport authority, and those developers that he represents to complete projects with fewer regulatory headaches.

Yet most troubling, they add, is an answer that Wright gave on the questionnaire that nominees are required to fill out when they're facing confirmation hearings. That questionnaire asked: "Have you, or businesses of which you have been an owner, officer, or employee, held any contractual or other direct dealings during the past four years with any state or local government agency in Florida?"

Wright checked no.

That's wrong. Wright has been a partner in the Orlando law firm Shutts and Bowen since 1992. Shutts and Bowen is contracted with Seminole County to provide real-estate services. Basically, if the county wants to purchase a piece of land, Shutts and Bowen handles the paperwork.

Of course, Wright's multiple dealings with SJWMD, his position on the Sanford Airport Authority and his appearances before the Seminole County Commission -- like the January Wal-Mart hearing -- make his answer even more alarming. Asked about that answer, Wright told the Sentinel he'd "look into it."

On March 9, the Sierra Club released a letter to Gov. Bush, asking him to withdraw Wright's nomination. Though Wright has acted as chairman of the committee since July, his appointment still must go through the Senate Confirmation Committee before it is final. Stopping it may be a long shot, but the Sierra Club's Hinman thinks it is possible.

Any chance Wright's opponents have lies in what Batchelor describes as an "inherent conflict. You cannot one day put on a pro-development attorney hat and litigate against the county and not have an inherent conflict. How is that not a conflict?" Because of his dealings with developers, Batchelor says, Wright would have to continually disqualify himself from voting -- and that would defeat the purpose of his nomination altogether.

Batchelor, nominated by President Clinton to serve as a human-rights ambassador with the United Nations, says he doesn't question Wright's character, just the appropriateness of this particular appointment. If the committee was short someone to represent developers, Wright would be a fine fit, he says. But as a lay person, with equal responsibility to all?

"Laughable," he says.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.