Only in Florida: Battle over water, free speech pits billionaire vs. activist

Tampa Bay Times by Craig Pittman

May 10, 2018

This is a story about free speech, government secrecy and a fight over tens of millions in taxpayer funds. The players include a billionaire who once had a hit man kill his horse, two politicians charged with breaking the Sunshine Law and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s sister.

But the most important aspect of this story is about Florida’s water supply and how a lawsuit involving a company called Lake Point Restoration may upend a fundamental rule about Florida water — namely, that water belongs to the public, not wealthy businessmen.

One of the participants contends that what happened in that years-long suit will open the door for big companies to jump into the water business, driving up prices and starving the environment. Sugar companies, citrus growers and phosphate miners could start commandeering the water on their land and selling it.

Right now, Florida law says fresh water is “a public resource benefiting the entire state,” not just big corporations and their owners, said Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Fellow in Residence at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the author of three books on water policy. The law also says water “must be managed in a manner to ensure its sustainability.”

No one is allowed to sell water he or she happens to find, not without proving to state officials that doing so is in the public interest, she said.

But that, say water experts, may be changing, thanks in part to this case.

• • •

The story begins with polo ponies.

In 2005, a developer bought 2,200 acres of sugar cane fields near Lake Okeechobee in Martin County. The company planned to turn the land into a residential development called Lake Point that would be marketed to polo players. But by the time the company got the building permits, Florida’s real estate industry had collapsed. Nothing was built, and the property went back on the market.

A broker brought it to the attention of investor George Lindemann Jr., who had made millions restoring and selling old commercial buildings in Miami Beach. He already had plenty of money from family connections — his father made a fortune in the cell phone and cable TV industry.

In 2008, Lindemann put together a consortium of family members and business partners to buy the Lake Point property. Instead of ponies and houses, their plan involved mining and water.

Calling the operation Lake Point Restoration, Lindemann’s group wanted to dig up rocks to sell for building roads and other construction projects. The pits left by the mining would store water from Lake Okeechobee when the lake got too full, as well as clean its pollution.

Lindemann is a self-professed environmentalist who has given more than $10,000 to Audubon Florida and last year was named “Conservationist of the Year” by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. He said the idea of using the property for both mining and cleaning up pollution is why he wanted in on the deal.

“What attracted me was it was an opportunity to do something in a different way — to be helpful and make money,” Lindemann said in his first in-depth interview.

Lindemann had never tackled a real estate project quite like this. But he’s not the typical Florida real estate investor.

Lindemann, 54, is the rare billionaire who has spent time behind bars. In 1995, as he aspired to Olympic equestrian glory, Lindemann was convicted of wire fraud after paying a hit man $25,000 to electrocute his own horse, Charisma. He did it so he could collect $250,000 in insurance money. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and served about a year.

Going from a life of luxury to being behind bars “was a very traumatizing experience,” Lindemann said.

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