A push in the state Legislature for a new toll road system through North-Central Florida could benefit the richest man in Florida.
Thomas Peterffy, reportedly a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and a resident of Billionaire’s Row in Palm Beach, bought about 561,000 acres in 2015 – a tract the size of Rhode Island – in the rural Panhandle, including land in Lafayette, Dixie and Taylor counties. A large swath of the land includes an already-approved massive development corridor in rural Taylor County which envisions intense residential and commercial building. It’s very rural now, but a new toll road would bring traffic and infrastructure – including connections for water, sewer and telecommunications – to the region.
Peterffy, as well as the two wealthy men who sold him the land five years ago, have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Florida Republican political committees and candidates, state records show. Peterffy gave $310,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis and to a Republican political action committee called the Fund for Florida’s Future in 2017-2018. Peterffy is listed by Forbes as the 25th richest person in America.
The exact corridor for the toll roads – a top priority of Republican state Senate President Bill Galvano from Bradenton – isn’t yet mapped out for the public. But, generally, the plan calls for:
– A “Suncoast Connector” highway to extend the Suncoast Parkway from north of Tampa up to North Florida’s Jefferson County, along the Georgia border.
– A highway to link Polk County to Collier County, the “Southwest Central Florida Corridor.”
– A “Northern Turnpike connector” to extend the Florida Turnpike northwest from I-75 in Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway on the state’s west coast.
Under the plan, drivers would have to pay to travel through an area they once used for free.
The Tampa-to-Georgia portion of the toll road network could go through the huge tract that was master-planned years ago by a consultant to Taylor County and approved by Florida’s now-defunct land-planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs, under former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Land in the area has long been controlled by various Republican campaign donors. The land Peterffy owns now was held by Bush family political contributors Robert Day and Howard Leach. Leach was Ambassador to France under President George W. Bush. He gave $100,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis last year.
The polluting Georgia Pacific wood cellulose mill that sits on Taylor County’s fouled Fenholloway River is owned by Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch. Bo Taff, a former state official for Gov. Jeb Bush, was tapped to shepherd Taylor County’s development approvals.
Peterffy bought the land in 2015, through his company Four Rivers Land & Timber. The master development plan came with the property, and it allows over 45,000 mixed-use development acres, 25,600 residential units and more than 10 million square feet of industrial and non-residential land use, according to county economic development records.
Florida Senate President Galvano said through spokeswoman Katie Betta that he doesn’t know Peterffy, and pointed out that the exact path of the proposed roads isn’t known yet. Betta said that will be determined later, after input from local governments and state agencies.
Republican state Sen. Tom Lee, a homebuilder who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties, is sponsoring the bill in the legislature to create the new regional toll road system. He said he does not know Peterffy.
Lee told lawmakers at a recent committee meeting that one of the goals is to spur development in rural areas that growth has passed by. Dave Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, called the toll-road plan “a recipe for sprawl.”
“That’s all you need for exploding development, because the land would be comparatively cheap,” Cullen said, “and they’ll come put in as many houses as they can sell as quickly as possible, and this state will suffer.”
The legislation projects that the new toll roads would open a decade from now, but the state would start spending millions to plan them as soon as next year. The Senate bill says the project would cost $45 million in FY 2020, $90 million in 2021 and then $135 million annually through 2030, a total of more than $1.3 billion, which would then pay for a state turnpike bond to pay for program.
In touting the toll road plan, Senate President Galvano said that rural areas face a problem “because so often those communities get forgotten, economically and otherwise.”
According to Florida Trend magazine, Peterffy also bought a 32,000-acre tract in Highlands County several years ago. That area is a possible route for the new planned toll road connector to link Polk and Collier counties. The land once belonged to the heirs of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin, Jr.
Galvano told the Tampa Bay Times last month that the idea for the toll road plan came to him after he held discussions with the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which represents state road and bridge builders, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Both groups contributed to his Innovate Florida political action committee when he was running for Senate president.
No one from Peterffy’s Four Rivers Land & Development company would comment for this story.
Peterffy made his money by creating electronic trading networks (Interactive Brokers) for the stock market. An immigrant who came to America from Hungary, he spent millions in 2016 on political television ads during the Trump campaign urging people to vote Republican and issuing a warning about the dangers of socialism.
Two years ago, he sold the largest estate in pricey Greenwich, Connecticut for $21 million, and this year bought a $22 million four-bed apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. His Palm Beach estate is on South Ocean Drive, near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.
Even with a master development plan in place, it may be hard to attract people to come to live in Taylor County. That’s because the Foley cellulose mill there – owned by Procter & Gamble for years and now owned by Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia Pacific – has caused massive industrial waste pollution in the Fenholloway River, including a wide “dead zone” where the river empties into the Gulf. In 1947, the state designated the spring-fed Fenholloway as the only Florida river officially set aside for industrial use. Under a special law, any company there could dump whatever it wanted into the river. In the 1990s, the state confirmed that groundwater in the area is contaminated with pulp mill chemicals, including some private wells. Georgia Pacific has a plan to build a pipeline to the river’s mouth to dispose of the mill’s industrial waste there, closer to the Gulf. The mill is legally allowed to discharge 50 million gallons of wastewater a day.
Reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this story.