Multi-million dollar land deal: Who wins?

Reporter: Céline McArthur Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

Should county commissioners be allowed to vote on projects on land they recently had a stake in? Some people living in Collier County say no.

“Who benefits from all this? Not the taxpayers who benefit from all this,” says Golden Gate Estates homeowner, Marcela Zurita. “Obviously, if it’s a favorite, favorite. It’s not whether it’s legal or not, but it’s unethical.”

Or is it? In any event, they want an ethics investigation. We take a closer look at what happened, and if any rules have been broken.

The controversy surrounds a major housing development going on the land beyond this lake, which was once a limestone quarry. It’s on the edge of the Everglades, and borders Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Immokalee Road Rural Village project includes up to 4-thousand homes. People I spoke to who live in bordering Golden Gate Estates, are against the development.

“We do have deer, bears, and we leave this land for them,” said Zurita.

“You know, even a panther you can’t pet them. But I love that they’re there. I love nature,” said Michael Tanguay. “I like being out, and I like the tranquility. That’s why we live out here. And we respect it.”

“Even the wind going through the trees sounds like the sea coming up,” said Rae Ann Burton. “It’s just it’s just something you cannot get in a city.”

They understand growth is inevitable.

“But it’s going so fast. And it feels sloppy,” says Tanguay.

“There is a lot of focus on the residential and commercial thing, but less focus on infrastructure,” says Victor Ebenezer. “I mean, just going from here to the Publix, you can see heavy traffic, plenty of accidents.”

“All we’re doing is making one giant city,” says Robert Fiermonti.

“I am asking the people to take the time, go to the public lands because for us to protect it, you have to understand it, you have to feel it,” says Zurita.

Collier County Commissioners meeting from September 27.

Despite their concerns, the Collier County Commission unanimously approved a land-use amendment for developers to build.

The vote came on Sept. 27, the day before Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida, as people boarded up their homes and prepared for the near cat-five storm.

“The worst in history,” said Burton. “The people should be at home, securing their homes, not sitting in a meeting, hearing about a project that many of them are against.”

It’s a project Burton feels Chairman Bill McDaniel should never have been allowed to weigh in and ultimately vote on.

Collier County Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel.

“He probably pushed it for the meeting because he didn’t expect anybody to be there to protest,” said Burton.

In the early 2000s, McDaniel’s company owned 200 acres of land that’s part of the current development. He and a partner guaranteed $20 million in loans to run an excavation business on it. The Great Recession hit. The company defaulted on loans, adding up to $42.7 million in debt. McDaniel helped arrange the sale of that land through foreclosure, which wiped out that massive debt.

“It’s an albatross around his neck,” said Bob Norman, Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Norman’s been digging into McDaniel’s dealings.

“So what he does is he helps to steer the land to this developer, and the value of that land and the value of the debt that he’s trying to unload is all based on a vote by his governmental body,” said Norman. “What he told me was that he had a legal obligation to vote.”

The Florida Sunshine law does require commissioners to vote on matters before them unless there is or appears to be a possible conflict of interest. Caroline Klancke is the founder of the Florida Ethics Institute and used to work for and investigate complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics. I asked her to explain the law. When it comes to the voting conflict statute, the Code of Ethics focuses on current personal relationships or business associates that could compromise an elected leader’s ability to be impartial—at the time of the vote.

“A snapshot in time, on the date that the measure is before the collegial body,” said Klancke.

However, that’s not the only statute in the Code elected leaders must follow. Klancke says the most heavily investigated one is Misuse of Public Position, and encourages anyone with concerns about the conduct of elected leaders, to speak up and file a complaint.

I asked McDaniel to explain his role and stake in the project.

Collier County Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel speaking with WINK News Investigative Reporter Celine McArthur. (Credit: WINK News)

“There is a perception of a conflict of interest,” said McDaniel.

McArthur: “You were able to wipe out $42-million in debt. And now the developer who has that land has to come to you and the Commission in order to get approval like land use amendments…”

McDaniel: “I consulted with the county attorney the entire time when I was moving through this. We consulted with the state of Florida, there is no ethics violation, I do not have a conflict of interest.”

McArthur: “Was there any understanding between you and any developer or any other business partner that if this deal went through that you would help them facilitate a board approval?”

McDaniel: “No. I lost that piece of property in a foreclosure action, the people that bought that piece of property in the foreclosure action, or from the people who had bought my debt, I lost the property in foreclosure, then the debt sold on the secondary market. Then the secondary market, people sold it to another group of investors who actually facilitated the foreclosure on me. I was three away, I had nothing to do.”

McDaniel believes investors looking at the bigger development picture for East Collier County saw the value of his land.

“It was no secret that the Big Island piece could be a connector for that 846 Mine to get out to the Immokalee road. It’s wasn’t brain surgery,” said McDaniel. “Anybody with half a brain could look at it and see that that piece of property was there, but they’re certainly… I barely, I barely talked to those people that ended up buying my debt. It wasn’t… the greatest relationship? How’s that?”

The Commission only needed four votes to move the project forward, so I asked—why not sit this one out?

“There was a commissioner on the Board of County Commissioners that voted against all of these projects, all of these projects… if they can find a way to take me out, that fails the project,” said McDaniel.

In the end, he thinks his critics are doing what they can to protect the land from future development.

“There will always be people that care more about the four-legged critters than my favorite Florida Wildlife,” said McDaniel. “Do you know what my favorite Florida Wildlife is? The human race.”

He says Collier County has a build-out population of somewhere between 800-thousand to a million people. The current population is almost 400-thousand, so there’s a lot more that can be developed. As for his land deal, I reached out to the Ethics Commission to see if McDaniel is under investigation. By law, they can’t tell us if there’s an active investigation into his actions.

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