The Villages is one of the strangest, and most significant, planning and development stories in recent memory—with surprisingly regular relevance in the media and numerous intersections to politics and culture.
This is the first of two articles (the second can be found here) about the numerous intersections between planning, development, and politics in The Villages, Florida, scene of the video tweeted by the President of the United States that prominently shows a man shouting "white power."
When President Trump retweeted a a video of a man shouting “white power” on June 28, 2020, some of the resulting backlash and mockery focused on the backdrop for the ugly scene. To the trained eye, the location for another embarrassing and racist episode in the social media career of the president could be none other than The Villages, Florida, which has a habit of triggering the zeitgeist. The golf carts filling the streets, the blatant historicism among the facades in the background—like “Main Street Disney for Geriatrics,” said one of my friends on Facebook. (He isn’t the first. Mother Jones has made the same comparison in the past.)
Regular Planetizen readers will recognize The Villages from annual rankings of the best-selling master planned communities in the country, and from periodic attention as the unofficial poster child for the golf cart as the wave of the mobility future. The ongoing attention, combined with the obvious gestures toward historic forms favored by the Congress of the New Urbanism, raises the profile of The Villages among the annals of recent planning and development history. Factoring its numerous political and cultural oddities, The Villages might be regarded as a case study par excellence of the multiple pressures currently forging the American development landscape—but with bizarre and twisted results.
Imagine a local political system that sways the actions of the regional government, even reaching into national politics and presidential elections, led by a power known in local lore simply as “The Developer.” Imagine a false history, manufactured to add flavor to the community. Imagine population growth rapid enough to receive credit for sufficiently countering an ongoing influx of Latino population to achieve a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election. Imagine those same conservative voters ditching the standard American vehicle, the full-size SUV, to drive small electric vehicles.
It’s all here, in a community marketed as “America’s Friendliest Hometown.”
A Growing Center for Conservative Politics
As you probably know by now, President Trump deleted his racist tweet, and marched White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany out in front of the press to excuse the blunder. The original tweet has also been pulled down, due to a copyright complaint, but the video of the protestors, filled with verbal and physical confrontations between dueling factions of white seniors is still available through official channels on YouTube. One of the anti-Trump protestors on hand, Ed McGinty, already had a reputation as a lone voice in the Republication wilderness, with a profile in the Washington Post (gratuitous mention of the golf cart included in the headline). With Trump at the center of the controversy, the entire episode reeks of inevitability.
If it’s anything like every other outrage from the past four years, most Americans have already forgotten the episode, but The Villages isn’t going anywhere. This portrait of contemporary America has been slowly metastasizing in Central Florida for decades. With that growth comes new levels of political clout.
“For several consecutive years, The Villages has been the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, drawing retirees to an area northwest of Orlando with endless recreation, relative affordability and an almost jarring level of cleanliness and order,” according to an article by Alex Leary. “Now more than 124,000 people live in the metro area.” Leary also credits that growing population in turning the tide of the election by overcoming the ongoing influx of Latino voters to the state of Florida.
The importance of The Villages to the GOP’s fortunes in the Electoral College have been documented online since the 2012 election, when the conservative voting block served as a key focal point of Mitt Romney’s failed bid to unseat Barack Obama. In addition to local news, national outlets like Forbes covering the Romney campaign took the temperature of the dependably conservative, older, white populations flocking to The Villages for retirement from places in the Northeast and Midwest.
That’s just how H. Gary Morse wanted it. Morse, the late conservative mega-donor who inherited the title of “Developer” of The Villages and supported Marco Rubio’s Senate bid in 2010 and Romney’s campaign in 2012, passed away before President Trump was elected in 2016.
Even with Morse gone, The Villages remains a centerpiece of the Republican’s Southern strategy, as discussed in a Politico article by Michael Grunewald titled, “The Future of the GOP”:
Trump supporters who get the most media attention tend to be economically anxious laborers in economically depressed factory towns. But in Florida, economically secure retirement meccas like The Villages are the real reason Trump won in 2016—and why the state’s Republicans, who have controlled Tallahassee for two decades, think they can avoid a blue wave in 2018 and help reelect Trump in 2020.
The Villages is expected to continue to grow, further pumping the breaks on any shift leftward pundits might be expecting from the state of Florida in the near future. Back in February, the Wildwood City Commission approved a rezoning of 12,513 acres to expand The Villages. The plan doesn’t depart from the current model provided by previous expansions of The Villages. The zoning of the new land is set for age-restricted development. The plan calls for 60,449 homes spread out around three project areas, each with millions of square-feet of commercial uses included. Sumter County is expected to refund The Villages for the cost of expanding the roads to serve the new expansion.
A study by consulting firm Kimley-Horn & Associates Inc. estimates that the expected expansion of The Villages onto that newly zoned land will increase the population of Sumter County its current level of 120,000 to 300,000 people by 2045.
Add it to the pile. Central Florida media have published so many articles about The Villages buying land and receiving approvals for expansion in the past five years, it's impossible to keep track. If Trump makes a comeback in Florida and the entire Electoral College in November, The Villages will play a role. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, under fire for the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, was there for a press conference on July 6.
A Strange Development Reality
Until his death, H. Gary Morse controlled almost every facet of life at the Villages under the title “The Developer.” Morse was compared to the Wizard of Oz on numerous occasions over the course of his career running The Villages, after taking over the job from his father, Harold Schwartz passed away. Here’s how Craig Pittman told the origin story of The Villages in an article published in 2013, which also begins to reveal the myth-making at the heart of the Villages (more on that in Part 2):
In the 1970s, a Michigan businessman named Harold Schwartz bought land that became the Orange Blossom Gardens mobile home park. A decade in, Schwartz got his son, H. Gary Morse, to leave a Chicago advertising firm and come join him. They put in a golf course and didn’t charge residents for using it, and the lure of free golf became the first step in drawing tens of thousands of new residents. By 1986 they were selling 500 homes a year and adding still more golf courses, pools, clubhouses, recreation centers, theaters, even a hospital. They put up a statue of Schwartz in a Disney-esque pose. After he died, his ashes were deposited inside the statue.
Since H. Gary Morse passed away, his son, Mark Morse, has taken the title of The Developer, showing a willingness to communicate and interact with the residents of The Villages. Another sign of change: scandals and political resistance.
The Developer’s political reach is long and strong, reaching all the way into the county government and usually getting whatever The Villages needs to continue expanding. Here's how Tim Murphy describes The Developer's political power:
The only check on what the Developer can do comes from the county government, but because almost everyone in the three counties lives in the Villages, and because the Developer has virtually unlimited resources to spend on local campaigns, the Developer exerts a great deal of influence on the county governments too. The growth of the Villages is impressive enough to leave longtime residents in awe of what a determined businessman can accomplish. It has also pissed off a lot of those same people.
In 2020, a Political Action Committee called Fair Government for Sumter is advocating for voters to oust three commissioners accused of being in the pocket of The Developer. The PAC’s complaint starts with the easy political support for the unfettered expansion of The Village.
“This expansion gives residents: higher taxes, traffic congestion, wear and tear on our roads, crowded facilities, stagnant property values (with the ever-increasing supply of houses), a risk to our water supply (even prior to the recent expansion, we had water rationing in 2017), and increased strain on a second-rate-heath-care system,” writes Reed Panos in an opinion piece written for Villages-News in May 2020.
The development controversy really comes down to a question of taxes. The expansion will be funded by increased taxes for county residents, and Panos and others are clearly anti-tax. Adding insult to injury, as the taxes of county residents have increased, impact fees paid by The Developer, already low, haven’t increased at all. “By increasing our taxes, while maintaining a sweetheart impact fee for the Developer, the Developer’s puppets are, in essence, giving the Developer hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars,” writes Panos.
“Oh, my, there is Trouble in Paradise. With a capital P that rhymes with T, that stands for tax,” writes Lauren Ritchie for the Orlando Sentinel’s opinion page.
This isn’t the first controversy involving taxes in The Villages. The Villages has feuded with the IRS for years over the community development districts (CDDs) that funded roads, sewers, and water lines as the The Villages expanded, with implications for similar development financing arrangements all over the state.
In 2009, Gary Fineout reported: “After months of inquiry, an IRS agent concluded in January that more than $64.2 million in bonds first issued in 2003 should not have been tax-exempt. In a lengthy analysis, the IRS states that the district does not function like a true government.” As context for that IRS finding, Fineout also noted The Developer’s control of the county government. Considering that the county commission is still a subject of development and taxing controversy, it’s unclear how much has changed in the decade-plus since the IRS issued these findings. The Developer had “politicians from both parties going to bat for him to make the IRS back off,” in 2013, according to Pittman.
Sharon Sandler, one of the most vocal anti-Trump protestors in the video that provoke Trump's snafu, has been quoted in the media since the episode questioning the marketing campaigns that tout The Villages as America's Friendliest Hometown. "But I'm here, and it's not," Sandler told The Washington Post. Clearly, thousands of overwhelmingly white and aging new residents disagree, and people who agree with Sandler in substance, if not style, should take notice.
Meanwhile, the title could probably be changed to "America's Developer-Friendliest Hometown" without offending anyone.
Planetizen will publish part two of this examination of The Villages soon, with information about the fake history of The Villages, and the similarities and differences between The Villages and Seaside, Florida.
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