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Guest Commentary: Raising Flags, Saving South Shore
By Dr. Arthur "Mac" Miller
Mar 2, 2006 - 9:24:00 PM

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My father, Willard Dickman ("W.D.") Miller, came to Shell Point in Ruskin on his ninth birthday, 100 years ago. He and his parents (Adaline Dickman Miller, George McA. Miller) and their other five children lived in the old fishing lodge atop the Indian shell mound (since leveled into fill dirt for Shell Point Road), then moved upriver to the Hoey property very near the Thomas Burial Mound, which overlaps the current proposed zoning changes for "Riverton."

It's most likely (according to the Florida Archaeologist Jerald Milanich) that Shell Point - already the confluence of the Caloosa and the Timucuan indian cultures - was the site of Uzita, and the site of Hernando De Soto's first encampment in Florida. Near here, Juan Ortiz was "freed" by De Soto's men, after he'd been saved from death seven years before by the Chief's daughter. (Later, John Smith so liked this story, that he dressed it up with himself as hero, in the tale of Pocahontas!)

[All this information is peer-reviewed and published, by the way.]

From the area of Uzita, my paternal grandfather's family moved farther inland to what's now Ruskin about the time the Dickman family moved temporarily from the railhead at Wimauma to the empty turpentine camps just east of Ruskin.

Brothers L.L. Dickman, Captain A. P. Dickman, and their sister Adaline then built three of South Shore's main historic landmarks. All three are still standing in Ruskin.

I've lived in Ruskin, on and off (Army, etc) since I was six. That's a few decades ago. This landscape, to me, is a precious area, deep in history, endangered natural beauty, and a threatened sense of civic identity.

Pictured above in this 2001 file photo, the dock and boat ramp at the fromer Cedar Grove Mobile Home Park are now a part of the proposed Riverton development project. The property is no longer open to the public and the dock has since fallen into disrepair.
Persons may have moral standards, and I'm sure that corporate administrator Richard McGuinniss is, as Mitch Traphagen's column notes, "gracious, open, and intelligent." But he is also project manager of Manatee Bay Associates (now developing "Riverton" at old Cedar Grove just south of Shell Point Road), which is itself a subset of Earthmark Corporation, which has erected the "Great Wall of Condo" at the former Bahia Beach, which is now "Little Harbor." Yep, darn little harbor will be left for the non-millionaires of South Shore! I think that's most of us, don't you?

Rather than have moral standards, almost all for-profit corporations have profit motives. Profits are not morals. If doing something barely legal will make more money, a corporation will do that . . . rather than do what is right. It sure is confusing that a corporation is also a "legal person" and thus can do fun person-stuff like giving money to public officials and calling it free speech.

Our attempts at community action have, largely, been thwarted by those more powerful than the people of Ruskin. Let me put this another way: We've allowed the BOCC to turn a blind eye when they violate their own "Hillsborough County Land Use Development Plan" (which calls for the Little Manatee River to be a pristine river and wildlife corridor), and so far we've only begun to mount a successful community revolt against the absurdly dense (in every sense of the word) rezoning plans of "Riverton," which managed to sneak in through the 30-day "window" after the BOCC approved the Ruskin Community Development Plan. Is it legal for Manatee Bay Associates to do that? Probably so. They've got high-priced lawyers (and lobbyists), and I don't. But are they doing the right thing for Ruskin? Certainly not.

Aside from random acts of terror and kindness, there are very few ways to help a corporation do what's right. One way is legislation, but - of course - property development rights come first. Yeah, sure. Another way is to convince corporate powers that their greedhead policies will lose them money pretty quick. If the most- aware folks in Ruskin hate your company, it'll be harder to sell condos and the like. If despoiling the environment and developing an overpacked flood-zone "deathtrap" at the far end of two-lane Shell Point Road (where there are already 1,500 new units) is seen as close-to negligent homicide, well then what? Maybe those lovely new homes will be harder to sell?

No member of our Board of County Commissioners lives south of Brandon, alas. I can count the BOCC members who give a damn about South Shore on my thumbs. Maybe on one thumb? But most of them seem to really love land developers. Even in violation of county and community guidelines, there's hardly a landscape they wouldn't despoil whenever the owner wants to make its zoning even more dense and profitable.

Even in Ruskin, we've let large chunks of our history slip away. Try "demolition by neglect" at The Coffee Cup? Gee, and we didn't even get that new drugstore, did we? There are some outstanding exceptions: the refurbishing of the L.L. Dickman house as the RCMA on 41, just across the road from the carefully maintained Woman's Club House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the A. P. Dickman House. And there's the preservation of at least the core of the "Willis House," southwest corner of Shell Point Road and 41. And there are bright sparks of civic responsibility in the Dickmans' donation of 40 acres for a campus of Hillsborough Community College out near the Interstate. Let's not talk about the rabbit-warren development down by the Ruskin Cemetery, please.

Mostly, however, we've culled and bulldozed historic businesses and older one-family homes in the name of so-called development that "develops" nothing but suburban sprawl. Goodbye to "The Deck" which used to be the "Shell Point Tavern." It's goodbye to the safe and accessible beach at Apollo Beach. Soon, farewell to the same at Little Harbor? Farewell, already, to the old boat launch at Cedar Grove (soon to be Riverton). Soon, I'd guess, the boat launch at Shell Point will be for high-rise boat-storers only? Why not. The public has no right to access the waterfront below mean-high-tide level, right? Wrong!

The only way Ruskin can stave off its own ruin is to make the profiteers know they'll lose money by doing bad things.

What bad things? Multiplying our home insurance rates, stripping us of housing that teachers, firefighters, auto mechanics, and maybe even middle-income retirees (to name a few) might afford, turning our roads into gridlock, overstuffing our schools with underfunded students, forging enclaves of wealth and exclusion in "gated communities," despoiling the wetlands and riverine flows that feed our commercial and recreational fisheries, and barring the general public from easy access to the river front and the bay front - just to name a few. The list goes on. Try: the drawdown of drinkable water, already rationed. What's next, sinkholes of saltwater along the bay front? Folks., this is is not development, it's devastation. Absolute ruin. Absentee landlords from Lee County, and elsewhere, run these corporations. They eat the heart out of Ruskin. Even Apollo Beach may come to know that, in the brave new world of waterfront high-rise, sunsets are for the rich.

If we can't help ourselves in Ruskin, we sure can't look northward for much help. Shell Point Road is already a "failed" road in terms of radically increased capacity. The Ruskin Community Development Plan, already approved by the BOCC, rightly calls for it to remain a low-impact local two-lane road. Tallahassee (even farther north than Brandon, at last count) and the Governor's so-called policy of "concurrency" won't solve many problems. "Concurrency" simply means that new roads and schools must be built in the same timeframe as new housing. Sounds good for us, but the former Bahia Beach (now Little Harbor) allegedly has long-standing "development rights" which defy environmental regulations, standards of safety for roads, general provisions of County and Civic planning, and - in short - "concurrency." A sure formula for civic blight, no?

Closely examined, even the Governor's proposed policy of "concurrency" is a farce. Even if it's enforced, we'll always be at least three years (yes, years) behind the power-curve of suburban sprawl.

The problems are national and statewide, but our first actions, right now, must be local. All one can ask of each of us is, "Use your conscience." Remember: you have the morals. Corporations don't. You've got to make their civic duties so clear that their profits will be endangered by your power as a citizen (protest bad rezonings!), as an informed reader (read the weeklies and the Tampa and the St. Pete papers) and as voter. Make the BOCC actually do its job? Well, given how far south we live in the County, that may be Mission Impossible! The choices are clear, but the work won't be easy.

Start by reading the Florida Sierra Club web site, then get some depth of perspective by going to the web site of the Ruskin Historical Association . Then consider: local power means having local government. Go to web site and learn why we should, long ago, have become a real township, like Tampa, or Temple Terrace!

Attend the Township Information Meeting at Ruskin Elementary School, from 6:30 to 8:00 P.M. on Thursday March 9.

It's time to rise up from the roots of our community, and assert our value as citizens. When I was a kid, a mass of Ruskin folks would gather at the Woman's Club and sing, to the tune of "A Jolly Good Fellow," a song titled "It's the Way We Have at Ruskin." It's time to reach out, again, to our community. We haven't always been selfish in our short-term interests and heedless of all but financial rights. (Women could vote in Ruskin long before they could vote at the state and federal levels.) How about that.

Let's raise a few flags for Ruskin, and save South Shore along the way?

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