Court Hears 'Planet' Appeal

Weekly Planet was back in court Aug. 7, attempting to force Tampa businessman Dick Corbett to reveal how much his International Plaza sweetheart lease will cost taxpayers.

The Planet has filed a public-records lawsuit against a Corbett company, his partnership with two mall developers, and his landlord, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

The newspaper wants the authority, which operates Tampa International Airport, to disclose an agreement between Corbett's company and the partnership. (See "What is the Big Secret?" at www.weeklyplanet.com/2001-04-12/cover.html.)

The document might just show how much Corbett is profiting from a deal he cut with the developers of International Plaza, an upscale shopping mall that opened last year on airport land.

A Washington, D.C., watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, has estimated the aviation authority will lose more than $500-million over the 85-year life of Corbett's lease for the land.

Corbett is a close friend of Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who sits on the aviation authority.

The authority has refused to turn over what is known as a lease-arrangement agreement. Airport officials say they don't have it. They claim to have also asked Corbett for a copy of the entire document. But they haven't joined the Planet in seeking a court order forcing Corbett to produce it.

The Planet is appealing a circuit court ruling in favor of keeping Corbett's International Plaza deal secret.

Three judges from the Second District Court of Appeal cut to the chase at the Aug. 7 hearing.

Presiding Judge Chris W. Altenbernd demanded to know of Planet lawyer David M. Snyder how the terms of a mall lease could be any business of the public's, since government normally stays out of the retail business.

Snyder argued that the public remains interested in the International Plaza lease because the mall is located on public property. Taxpayers are entitled to know if International Plaza pays substantially higher rent to Corbett than he does to the aviation authority and, if so, why the airport leased public land so cheaply.

Judge James W. Whatley sounded in agreement with Snyder. "Doesn't public function follow public land?" Whatley asked lawyers for Corbett and the aviation authority.

"There's no delegation of public function," replied Steven L. Brannock, Corbett's lawyer from Holland & Knight LLP, hoping to shift the discussion back to where Altenbernd had taken it.

Whatley expressed amazement that airport officials knowingly stuck a middleman like Corbett between their agency and the International Plaza developers, leaving the public and themselves in the dark about the lease arrangement terms.

"I can't for the life of me understand why your client wouldn't want to see those documents," Whatley told airport lawyer Richard A. Harrison.

To Corbett lawyer Brannock, Whatley asked: "Is the public supposed to blow in the wind for the next 85 years?"

Even Altenbernd was curious about why the airport is siding with Corbett. The Harvard-educated judge asked Harrison why the airport cares if Corbett's deal becomes public.

Harrison seemed surprised by the question. The airport lawyer finally answered that his client wanted to avoid having to pay the Planet's legal bill, which the aviation authority could have to do if the newspaper prevails in court.

—Francis X. Gilpin

The Bucs Stop Here

Sierra Club members gathered in force on Aug. 6 as Hillsborough officials discussed a proposal to allow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to use 70 acres of Trout Creek Wilderness Park, near Morris Bridge Road, for a training facility.

"This will be analogous to moving the current One Buc Place to Morris Bridge Road," said John B. Grandoff III, the Bucs' attorney.

The land, owned by Gail A. Benton and Elaine Guerard Aldridge and surrounded on all sides by nature preserves owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, would accommodate three football fields, offices and a storage facility, according to Grandoff's proposal. The site would not be open to the public, Grandoff said.

Environmentalists fear the training camp will attract crowds, spur additional development, contaminate the Florida Aquifer and adversely affect animals, including gopher tortoises and Sherman's fox squirrel, living in the surrounding preserves. Additionally, the field lights could disrupt animal hunting cycles and harm migratory birds, environmentalists said.

"There are animals depending on us to make a good decision," said Hadrian Alegarbes, who leads free Sierra Club tours in areas including Trout Creek Wilderness Park. Alegarbes would like the Bucs to build a training camp in an area that would contribute to urban rejuvenation.

Joe Murphy, a conservation organizer for Sierra Club, agrees that the training camp should be in the city. "While the community has invested in the Bucs, this would be a great opportunity for the Bucs to invest in the community," Murphy said.

Denise Deee Layne, a Republican running for Hillsborough commissioner, also criticized the Bucs' proposal, saying New Urbanist developer Andres Duany inspected the land several years ago and ruled it too environmentally fragile to support development.

The land is zoned suburban. "The training camp would have less of an environmental impact than other uses, such as a neighborhood," said Grandoff, who added that the Bucs would install a sophisticated water runoff system to prevent fertilizers and other chemicals from entering the surrounding preserves. Of the 70 acres, Grandoff said, the Bucs would develop on only 19.

Purchasing the land and building the training facility would cost an estimated $12-million, funded from the Community Investment Tax (read: the Bucs Tax). County zoning hearing master John Crislip must submit his recommendation by Aug. 28, and the Hillsborough commissioners are scheduled to vote on the matter Sept. 24.

The Hillsborough commissioners, sitting as the county Environmental Protection Commission, also must approve the proposal before development can begin.

"This is not the ideal location," said Martin Montalvo, an environment scientist critical of the Bucs' proposal. "It's just the most convenient."

—Trevor Aaronson

Cable Caper

Anyone who gets a cable bill has probably fantasized about taking AOL Time Warner Inc. by its metaphorical arm and twisting until it cries, like customers do when writing that check.

Ann Goldenberg, who works for the Tampa Educational Cable Consortium, didn't just fantasize. She devised a plot.

Time Warner is turning over operation of some of its cable franchises to business partner Advance/Newhouse Communications. The move is called a transfer of ownership, but for customers it won't mean much.

However, it could have meant millions for Hillsborough County if officials had twisted some arms, according to a memorandum that Goldenberg sent County Administrator Daniel Kleman.

For a transfer of ownership to happen, the county has to agree. They can also make some, uh, requests. Goldenberg suggested requesting $20-million in funding for public access and educational access over the next 15 years. The channels wouldn't need county funding anymore. Free at last.

Advance/Newhouse could have refused, of course, but then Hillsborough could also have refused to accept the transfer of ownership.

Instead, it was the county commission that refused to go along with Goldenberg's plan, which county budget director Eric Johnson characterized as "a quick money grab." The cable company would just add the additional cost onto customer bills, according to Johnson. "Nothing's ever free," he said.

Especially not cable.

Ann Goldenberg, who is married to Weekly Planet film critic Lance Goldenberg, did not respond to requests for an interview.

—Rochelle Renford

Last week's news story "Soliciting Hope" misidentified a hotel on 34th Street in St. Petersburg. It was a Hampton Inn, not a Holiday Inn.