Blind Spot

The original three buildings of the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind were indistinguishable from single-family homes — handsome, Victorian structures set behind a low picket fence on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. A photograph from the era shows students seated on the wide front porches and leaning over the gate, as horse drawn carriages and pedestrians stroll by (right).

In the intervening years, the school has evolved — to put it mildly. It has grown from five to almost 80 acres and from a few dozen to roughly 700 students. In that time, the school has not only erased its once-domestic footprint, it has decimated acres of single-family homes and destroyed large swaths of the surrounding historic neighborhood. In recent years, school administrators have bought and demolished two city streets of charming, well-built bungalows, in defiance of the wishes of nearby residents, their own original master plan and even, on occasion, city law.

In recent weeks, the city and the school have been in mediation, trying to settle on an appropriate response to school’s brazen disregard of city rules on matters such as fence height and the preservation of historic structures. But even as negotiations were ongoing, the school’s chief benefactor — longtime FSDB Board member and state Rep. Bill Proctor (R-St. Augustine) — was working to exempt the school from following any rules at all. House Bill 1139, introduced by Proctor in December, would shield FSDB from having to observe city zoning codes and give the school the radical power of eminent domain.

The measure would allow the school to accomplish one thing immediately — to build the block-long dormitory that it’s been wanting for years. The plan has been stymied in part by a need to rezone the property to allow for a dorm –– something residents oppose, and the city has previously refused — and in part by the stubborn reluctance of one resident who refused to sell out (James Register, who has lived there since the 1960s, and who owns the only home left standing on the once-residential block). Both obstacles would be conveniently removed.

In fairness, the school has little other room to expand. It already acquired the former (filled) wetlands in the 1950s (before pesky “environmental laws” prohibited such things), so the only space left for it to grow is into surrounding neighborhoods. But the question of expansion raises a legitimate question of need: By exactly how much is the school growing? According to St. Augustine City Commissioner Leanna Freeman, the student population is trending in the opposite direction, down 10 percent over the past five to seven years.

For some, the declining population suggests that the school’s expansion push is unnecessary. But it’s not just a question of need. It’s a matter of principle. In rejecting the school’s previous request to rezone the Alfred/Genoply block for the dorm, city Planning and Zoning Board member Jerry Dixon noted “the [adjacent] property was acquired sort of underhandedly” — without informing residents of expansion plans, and without regard for the inch-thick Facilities Master Plan the school drafted at the request of the governor in the early ’80s. The school simply began buying up homes.

Without the power of eminent domain, which allows a government to take property by fiat and reimburse according to appraised value, the school used old-fashioned squeeze tactics, targeting willing sellers first, then pressuring reluctant residents to sell as the community eroded. As resident Bo Sterk told the St. Augustine Record in 2001, “Nobody knows what is going on. … People are just caving.”

The money used to acquire the homes, it’s worth pointing out, were taxpayer dollars — roughly $1.9 million — for a project that was either poorly defined or deliberately concealed. (The school’s own board minutes from March 2002 show that: “Purchase of the land was approved with the intention of use to be decided at a later date.”) Whether that money was well spent remains in question. Absent a rezoning, the school cannot use much of the land it purchased. And as a scathing 2003 audit by the state found, in at least 11 cases, the school had already drawn up contracts to buy property before it conducted the required appraisals. As audit supervisor Joe Williams noted at the time, “Essentially, the [FSDB] president believes the school is free to manage its own affairs … without regard to any statutory or rule provisions. We respectfully disagree.”

The fact that Proctor wants to free the school from rules it barely observes already is a slap in the face to the surrounding community — but not a big surprise. Proctor will be protected from public backlash by the fact that he’s term-limited, but in truth, he’s never shown much concern for what his constituents think. He’s never had to face a real challenge for his seat, never paused in his support of bills like SB 6 that his constituents opposed and has blithely chaired the House Education Committee while educating all his children (and now grandchildren) in private schools. Proctor’s disconnect from the people of his district has reached its apex with the FSDB proposal — a bill that would put an equally arrogant institution at a similar remove.

It’s a bad piece of legislation, and it sends an even worse message: Lawlessness and incivility are rewarded, and the rights of institutions take precedence over those of actual people. The students of FSDB deserve better role models.

Anne Schind