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The Golden Ruler 

Moments before Apopka squared off against the Bronx Baby Bombers at the Little League World Series in August, Mayor John Land met his New York City counterpart for the first time: "I heard you want me to spot you three runs," Land told him. Rudolph Guiliani met him with a blank stare, not quite getting Land's folksy sense of humor.

Four innings later, with the Bombers trailing on their way to an 8-2 loss, Guiliani got it. "I guess you aren't taking those three points," Land chided.

"I guess I should have," Guiliani said. That week, he had told hometown reporters that losing was "unthinkable."

An hour later, the differences between the two crystallized at a press conference, when a reporter asked both if they knew the players personally. Guiliani, of course, didn't. Land did -- he had watched many of them grow up. And he knew their parents, grandparents and (in some cases) great-grandparents. Sure, Apopka is no megapopulated metropolis, but Land's familiarity is remarkable for more than just his memory: His next year as mayor marks his 50th year in the office.

Throughout his brief encounter with the national spotlight, Land played it low-key -- the quintessential we're-just-happy-to-be-here, small-town mayor. The David-vs.-Goliath saga played well in the pre-Sept. 11 press, especially after he bet Guiliani some roses and potatoes that his challengers would pull out the unlikely win, to Rudy's bagels and hot dogs.

Again this month, Land's town has drawn the attention of headline writers, this time all across Florida, as the Apopka High School Blue Darters brought home the state championship in Class 6A football.

But neither John Land nor the city he has run for the last half-century is as simple as indicated in the glowing press reports of athletic prowess. At 81, Land has guided Apopka from being a small farming town, the self-proclaimed "Indoor Foliage Capital of the World," to a sprawling bedroom community of 28,000 with an annual budget of $28 million. It's plagued by the same growth-management problems as the rest of Central Florida, with gated subdivisions and strip malls replacing what was once citrus farms and open spaces. The roads are clogged and the downtown is fighting for vitality.

"I think we're kind of struggling for our identity," says Peter Jordan of the Apopka Historical Society. "There's a vision problem at times."

That's an understatement. All around the beautifully restored, vintage City Hall sit architectural eyesores -- pawn shops, drug stores, fast-food restaurants. To the south is a blighted, mostly minority section of town, with run-down houses and little industry. Around downtown, there are few upscale or historically valuable neighborhoods. To find those, you have to head 10 minutes out of the city's core.

Still, it's hard to find anyone in Apopka who's not a fan of "Uncle John," as he's known.

In fact, Land, whose $125,409 salary rivals that of both Glenda Hood and Rich Crotty, is so engraved in his city's past that its yearlong 120th anniversary -- which began in October with a Sawyer Brown concert -- will continue next month with a $50-a-head dinner at the Radisson Plaza Hotel and culminate with an acting group's biographical tribute to the forever mayor.

It's easy to see how the city fell under his spell: "He has the charm of a gentleman farmer, and the business sense of a Wall Street executive," says John Ricketson, publisher and editor of The Apopka Chief and The Planter, the city's two weekly newspapers. Moreover, he possesses a quick wit, elephantlike memory and sometimes subtle, yet pointed sense of humor. He remembers every face and attends as many funerals as possible. He tells stories dating back 60 years without skipping a detail (though in truth, his monotone can be a touch dull).

More poignantly, Land is a master at making personal connections, a trait that belies his deep-seated affection for the city he runs. Forty years ago, when the part-time mayor's job paid just $60 a month, Land donated much of his paycheck to his also-underpaid city administrators. When friends urged him to run for a more prestigious office, he always said no: He's happy right where he is.

But the city he so dearly loves has changed -- and is changing still. As Land approaches the sunset of his career, his administration is still fighting the uphill battle of remaking Apopka into the quaint, livable city Land so badly wants it to be. One thing's certain: Land's job is his as long as he wants it. "Nobody runs against John Land, because they know John Land," Jordan says. "If they do, they're somebody nobody knows and they're not going to win anyhow."

Land's been beaten only once, in 1967, a 27-vote loss that he took hard. "I don't hold a grudge," he insists, "though it was a pretty tough time. I didn't sleep for three days." In fact, for the three years he was out (in 1993, Apopka changed its charter to have mayoral elections every four years), "he was like a duck out of water," says his sister, Mary Miller. "He just missed it."

Land took less than a year to decide to run again, and, he adds with a measure of satisfaction, he trounced his opponent by a two-to-one margin. Since then, he hasn't faced a serious challenge, Ricketson says.

Part of his appeal is an ability to compromise: When it's developer vs. concerned neighbors, Land prides himself on bringing both parties to the table and working a deal; when it's black vs. white, Land has extended the same gracious hand to both.

"There's been times I've seen him be the only white face in a church full of hundreds of black faces," says City Commissioner Billie Dean, an African-American. "He was the same back even when they were segregated."

Dean and Land served together on the city committee that oversaw the high- school integration in 1969, and Land notes happily that Apopka beat Orlando to having both a black council member -- Alonzo Williams Jr., elected in 1971 -- and a black police chief.

Nonetheless, in a city where more than one-third of the residents are black or Hispanic, there have been racial tensions on Land's watch. In fact, much of Apopka's nonwhite population is relegated to the impoverished area south of State Road 441 -- the city's "line of demarcation," says Sister Ann Kendrick, who works with the Farmworker Association of Florida. In fact, two miles south of State Road 441, the city limits end with shacks and rusted trailers in the Orange County community formally known as South Apopka.

"[Land's] got a lot of good qualities," she says. "He's also the mayor of a small, racist town."

In 1980, Apopka resident Faithy Dowdell sued the city, claiming the city wasn't providing the same infrastructure for development -- paved roads, sidewalks, parks and sufficient water lines -- to black neighborhoods that it was to white ones, where growth was rampant in the wake of Disney World's 1971 arrival.

The city's initial victory was overturned on appeal, and Apopka was ordered to improve its southern end.

That lawsuit, Land explains, came on the heels of a new federal law mandating "parity" in black and white sections, and the city simply didn't have the tools to comply quickly enough. With the many incoming subdivisions, the city had rules requiring the developers to pay for new roads, and developers in the black section simply couldn't afford that, so nothing new was created. When the city lost, Land says, it immediately pumped in newfound community-development grant dollars to pave roads and build sidewalks.

There is still a lot of poverty. From 441 south to the city limits, there are few businesses, and most of the houses have seen better days. In South Apopka itself, there are nurseries and a few support businesses, but the housing doesn't get much better.

Land has caught flack for not annexing further south, as Apopka has already extended its boundaries as far east (where more affluent neighborhoods are) as county borders permit. "A lot of things are said about Apopka [by] people that don't know the inside scoop," Dean, a former high-school official who has served on the city council since 1994, says.

In 1984, Apopka asked black neighborhoods in South Apopka, along with whiter neighborhoods at its other extremes, to vote on joining the city.

They, not John Land, said no. Besides, Land adds, even if he could, the county has left the area in such disarray that bringing it in would not only burden his taxpayers, but also once again throw his city out of parity.

Land was always a cut-up. Once, while courting Betty, his wife of 52 years, he gift-wrapped a dead fish in a bouquet box and had his nephew deliver it to her. And, as his sister Mary Miller sheepishly recalls, when she first started wearing stockings, he bought her a pair of heavy cotton ones, "a horrible pair," certainly not the silk or nylon ones she wanted.

During Miss Apopka contests, brother Henry Land says, John and a buddy would mimic comedic duo Gallagher and Sheen, as well as the now politically incorrect Al Jolson, who gained notoriety stereotyping blacks with his "Oh Mammy" routine in the 1920s.

He doesn't sing as much any more, at least in public. His last performance, if you will, came at a city Christmas party five years ago, when the staff convinced him to sing "Hey Good Lookin'" while they put dollars in the jar on the karaoke stage. He's not shy about his voice -- he demonstrates his soft, sweet tenor during an interview. It's just that his lungs no longer have the strength to "belt one out," he says, as loudly as he used to.

He did belt out campaign songs. Returning from his 1967 loss, Land had a particularly amusing one: "Three years ago I ran for the mayor's seat/ and boy, how I got my tail beat/ This time things won't go wrong/ 'Cause I got myself a campaign song."

Land's humor is fairly innocuous, except for the overtly sarcastic letters he ripped off to Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1996. Then again, Land was angry at the time.

During World War II, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had installed dikes on parts of Lake Apopka so the fertile muck land could produce enough crops to feed the war machine. For the next 50 years, the farms served as the backbone of Apopka's business community, by the 1990s pouring between $62 million and $110 million into the local economy.

In 1996, Chiles signed an order beginning a three-year, St. Johns River Water Management-backed process to restore the lake to its natural habitat, a decision that would force the state buyout of 14,000 acres of farmland for $91 million, displacing thousands of mostly unskilled, uneducated farmworkers by 1998. Economically, Land says, that was akin to removing Universal Studios from Orlando. He took it personally.

"Someone showed me the nice ballpoint pen with your name on it that you passed out in Winter Garden while you signed the muck farm buyout," Land wrote on May 31, 1996. "If you have extra pens, could you please send them to Apopka and perhaps the displaced farmworkers and owners of closed out businesses could sell them off the street to keep off welfare."

That letter was followed by almost daily writings for the next month, each chiding Chiles for the decision or asking for help retraining the farmworkers. The best letter, dated June 7, followed a Chiles comment that his plan for the lake would "restore the game-fish habitat that once made Apopka a world-class bass fishery."

"Please excuse me for taking a respite from worrying about jobs Ã? and economic development for Apopka," Land wrote, beginning a three-page meandering dialogue about his favorite outdoor activity. "Quail hunting," he concluded, "is just not what it used to be back when fishing was so good in Lake Apopka Ã? While the state is spending $95 million to return fishing to Lake Apopka, could you please spend some money returning quail hunting?"

The state did allocate $5.28 million to soften the economic blow, but Apopka split the pot with Orange County and Lake County and took only $1.32 million -- one-third of which the city is still waiting on. That was not even close to being enough to cover the loss. Under the state buyout bill, Apopka could use 20 percent of the money for labor training, but by the time the bucks cleared bureaucratic red tape, most of the farmworkers had already moved on. Apopka ended up spending just $95,000 to that end.

The only ones who made out, it seems, were the farmers -- some of whom had been chiefly responsible for polluting the lake in the first place. Most took the money and ran, and that bothered Land.

"One thing the mayor has prided himself on," says city administrator Richard Anderson, "he's for the little people. [Only] the farmers did OK in the buyout."

Being an elected official for so long has its perks: "[Land's] got an open door to just about every [state legislator's] office I've ever seen," says 15-year City Commis-sioner Mark Holmes. "They know that he knows how things change." Moreover, Congressman Ric Keller and Mayor Hood have both sought Land's counsel, Holmes adds.

With his influence, Land has pushed his town's major agenda: transportation improvements. He has brought the Western Beltway toll road into town and has made the long-awaited Apopka Bypass, which would go south of town and take traffic off of jam-packed State Road 441, a probability. But that's not just a product of seniority, though he perhaps knows the political ropes better than anyone. Land curries open doors -- and ears -- by simply being nice, Holmes says. And it's not just a political ploy.

Five years ago, Land and Holmes were attending a conference in Tallahassee when they were approached by an old man who had just gotten off a bus to grab a bite at a local union hall, only to find the hall was closed. Even while Holmes was listening to the man's story, Land was heading back to the hotel kitchen, where he found a chef and convinced him to make the man a sandwich.

"That's just the type of person he is," Holmes says.

Born at his grandmother's house in Plant City, Land was the middle child of nine -- two of whom died in infancy -- and only Henry, John and Mary remain alive today. Just before his birth, his father had bought into a crate-manufacturing plant in Apopka, which the family owned and operated until they sold out in 1959. His mother had studied music and speech at a Georgia college and was active in local theater.

John Land, his siblings say, takes a lot after his mother, a kind, generous soul. But neither she nor their father was into politics, to which John and Henry both took a liking. To trace the Land brothers' political roots, you have to dig to their maternal grandfather, who chaired the Hillsborough County School Board in the 1920s. Henry, John's oldest sibling, entered the fray first, winning an Orange County Commission seat at age 26 in 1940. During that campaign's Democratic primary -- the only race that mattered at the time -- John, who was studying forestry at the University of Florida, spent his weekends learning the political ropes and rallying supporters.

World War II disrupted both their lives and, in 1942, both brothers joined the Army. Henry came back first, in 1946, and immediately tried but failed to regain his commission seat. (At the time, commission races occurred every two years instead of four, as now). When John got back later that year, his friends began pushing him to run for mayor.

In 1949, by the time 450 or so of the city's 2,000 people piled into City Hall (which doubled as a movie theater) to nominate mayoral candidates, Land knew his name would be called. It was, and two months later he found himself in the elected position that eventually became a career. (In 1952, Henry Land won a seat in the Florida Legislature, a position he held, off and on, for the better part of 20 years.)

Apopka was then as rural and agriculturally centered as it gets. Besides the muck farms, citrus groves and nurseries dotted the landscape. That was how Apopka always was -- the name itself comes from an Indian word meaning "potato-eating people." The earliest settlers were farmers who sold crops via the Wekiva River. Not until the railroads brought Union soldiers looking to resettle in the 1870s did Apopka have enough people to actually become a city.

The "Fern City" got its start in nurseries, now a billion-dollar industry, in 1912, when an Ohio native set up indoor fern-growing greenhouses. He figured he could make more money by not paying for heat in the winter. After the ferneries, the nursery industry expanded to take on dozens of other crops such as tomatoes.

When Land first became mayor, the job paid $1 a month. It wasn't until the 1970s that it became a full-time position with a halfway respectable salary, about $15,000 a year, though that number has shot up rather rapidly in the years since. In the early days, he subsidized his city pittance as a vice-president of the family crate mill and, after it was sold, running a Standard Oil wholesale shop.

The center of Apopka's social life was, Land says, the Masonic Lodge, the barber shop and baseball. Land served as the business manager for the town's team. Though it wasn't a professional squad, local business owners would offer good prospects cushy jobs so they could afford to play, and some even went on to the pros.

Land was never much of an athlete, though he always hung around sports. To this day, he still drives up to Gainesville for each and every UF home football game. Of course, he was in Tallahassee to see his Apopka High School team win the state football championship.

And he flew up to Williamsport, Pa., to watch the Little Leaguers on his own dime. It's just part of the job, he says.

"I always liked the outdoors," Land says, sitting in his cluttered office. On his desk, papers are stacked on piles of papers, with family photographs littered across the front. He has three children and five grandchildren, one of whom, he points out, has Down Syndrome. So mussed is his desk that he can't sit across from visitors; instead, he pulls up a chair next to them.

Typically, Land begins 20 minutes of uninterrupted reminiscing, barely pausing to breathe, much less letting one get a word in edgewise. He'll reveal, perhaps, that his wife was his sister Mary's best friend, and that Mary had been instrumental in getting them together. And he'll discuss old friends and acquaintances who have passed on, with a sort of passive acceptance that he's no longer a spring chicken.

At first, Land doesn't make much eye contact, preferring instead to stare off into the distance and fidget with a business card. Later, though, as he gets more comfortable in an interview, his warmth starts to shine through.

As a child, Land was big on hunting and fishing, and he still accompanies his son and nephew on hunting trips: "John will go out there," Mary Miller says, "though I don't think he does a lot of hunting. He just likes being out there."

Land was an environmentalist before, in his words, environmentalism was "cool." He studied forestry -- "Foresters were the first environmentalists," he says -- during his brief stint at UF, though he left prematurely for war and never came back to finish his degree.

In 1965, he and some hunting buddies began a quest to preserve the Wekiwa Springs State Park, a battle they won in 1969. Post-Disney, he notes, Apopka became one of the first Central Florida cities to set up impact fees for incoming developments and to reuse water for agriculture.

But sprawl hit Apopka just like everywhere else, and for 30 years developments came in unchecked. After freezes hit the citrus farms in the late 1980s, the farmers sold to developers, as did landowners who had lived in the city for generations.

"It's a tough thing to do," says Anderson. "Subdivisions come in and they want to build a wall. With landowners, people who have lived out here [for years] and have property worth big money, they don't want growth until the developer knocks on their door."

All the while, traffic continued to back up more on the city's main artery, State Road 441, and Land began lobbying for more roads. "We want roads all the time," he says.

Most controversial is the extension of the Western Beltway back to I-4, completing a sort of toll-road loop around metro Orlando. Backed by Land, Congressman Keller and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, the planned track would take the road right through the state-designated, no-development Wekiva River Protection Area, likely bringing high-intensity development to a fragile and currently untouched ecosystem. Even Land's prized Wekiwa Springs park could be threatened, says Sierra Club road warrior Keith Schue. (The springs feed the Wekiva River.)

"What's at stake is that the whole ecosystem fails," Schue says. "If he wanted to protect it, he wouldn't be promoting intense growth into the area."

Schue does support the Apopka Bypass, however, because it runs far south of the Wekiva zone and away from undeveloped land.

"With development," Land admits with a hint of regret, "it's hard to have open spaces any more." Still, he's no tree-hugger, as he readily points out: "If I'm an environmentalist, I hope I'm a practical one. I don't fight everything that's gonna happen."

Land's up for reelection next year, though he hasn't officially said he's running. Odds around City Hall are that he will. After all, he's spent the majority of his life in that two-story red-brick building -- it used to be his high school. As one official puts it, "We expect him to go out with his boots on."

There's even a joke floating around the office that when Land dies, they're going to stuff his body, stick him on the council dais, and pretend everything's normal.

Indeed, in Apopka government, the staff, the mayor and council members are attuned to one another. The goal, they agree, is preserving Apopka's uniqueness. To do that, they have to make downtown an economic center once again.

"For a while there," Holmes says, "it looked like we were going to be the fast-food capital of the world." To an extent, it still does. McDonald's sits next to Burger King and Taco Bell on the eastern edge of town, and closer to City Hall it doesn't get much better, with brand new Walgreens and Eckerd stores across the street from one another.

Those "things that make you sick," the historical society's Jordan says -- all eat away at the idea that Apopka is more than an Orlando suburb. Only recently did the city move to give itself a facelift, and its progress has been slow.

In 1993, the city set up a Community Redevelopment Agency, which has since pumped $2.4 million ($42,000 generated by tax-incremental financing, $750,000 from federal grants, $237,000 from Orange County, $100,000 from the state, and $241,000 in private and in-kind donations) into sidewalks, decorative streetlights, trees, bushes and underground utilities, as well as renovation of 16 building facades with new stucco, paint and windows.

Apopka recently applied for another $750,000 federal grant and committed $105,000 of CRA money to renovate five more buildings and make other improvements, which will extend a couple of miles in each direction from City Hall.

Right now, aside from three banks along State Road 441, there's little sign of economic development. Certainly, there's none of the light industry the city has sought since the muck farms shut down.

Apopka still has, to Land's credit, a bit of a small-town feel to it. Part of the reason, though, is that the city has only the one high school for all its residents. But that won't be the case much longer. By 2006, the school board plans to split students in West Orange among three schools.

Land is the mastermind of what's there and, when he's gone, the city will have to chart a new and unfamiliar course.

But now, as he nears the end of a lifetime of public service, Land can do something the rest of us can't: He can step outside and see a city he has helped to build from almost nothing. And every so often, he does just that -- takes a walk around town and remembers how he changed his part of the world. "Most of it," he says, "wasn't here 50 years ago."


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