Trouble in Tom Monaghan’s Catholic Paradise

Trouble in Tom Monaghan’s Catholic Paradise October 2, 2014

The Miami New Times, which does some really good investigative journalism, has a long and detailed report on what has happened in Ave Maria, Florida, Dominos Pizza founder Tom Monaghan’s Catholic paradise. I wrote about this a lot when it was first being put together a few years ago, but some of the new details coming out show it to be even worse than I anticipated. Like this little tidbit:

In the spring, Stuart received another shock, this time in the mail. It was a $1,287 bill to be paid to something called the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District. Like many of her neighbors, Stuart had no idea what that was.

Gov. Jeb Bush had signed the stewardship into law June 17, 2004. Like other special districts in Florida, it had been designed to give the developer — in this case Barron Collier Companies — government-like powers over the town as it was being built. But the special district’s charter hid an unprecedented secret.

“Even someone really versed in Florida law would think that it was just like any development district,” says Liam Dillon, a reporter back then who covered Ave Maria for the Naples Daily News. “But it was really a novel concept: Barron Collier could control the town forever.”

For decades, Florida developers had been required to cede control within ten years. But in the case of Ave Maria, the decision when — or if — to turn town government over to its residents lay entirely in the hands of the Southwest Florida land magnate. And the company seemed in no rush to let the townspeople vote.

“We could control it in perpetuity,” wrote Barron Collier vice president Tom Sansbury, according to a 2003 internal memo obtained by Dillon.

Ave Maria developers had more power than anyone since Julia Tuttle or Henry Flagler during the land boom at the turn of the 20th Century. Even worse, Ave Maria residents were kept in the dark about the controversial arrangement, even as they were spending their life savings to move to the Catholic enclave.

“Nobody really understood what was going on,” Dillon says. “Even the [state] legislators didn’t know, and they voted on it.” In a three-part series titled “Ave Maria: A Town Without a Vote, Now and Forever,” Dillon questioned the constitutionality of the town’s charter.

Stuart was asking herself the same thing. “It’s taxation without representation,” she says. So she began attending public meetings to demand answers. The stewardship board, however, wouldn’t respond to her queries. “This special district is a recipe for corruption,” she adds.

Barron Collier CEO Blake Gable says he has no desire to lord over Ave Maria, promising that residents will gain control “as soon as we sell enough property that they are majority landowners.”

But Stuart says that at the current rate, that could take 458 years. In the meantime, she is the only one speaking up. “It’s a company town,” she says. “Who is going to speak out against Monaghan and Barron Collier when nearly everyone here works for them?”

Anyone who did speak out about it was ostracized and fired immediately, even when they were telling Monaghan what the law says:

Ernsting was just the first of at least five employees to sue Monaghan over the move to Florida. Stephen Safranek, who helped found the law school, complained to the American Bar Association that Monaghan wasn’t acting in the school’s best interests by relocating. He also argued that Monaghan had hidden his intentions to move and misled the ABA two years earlier when applying for accreditation.

The professor led a September 2006 faculty revolt against the move — and was quickly fired. Then, like Ernsting, he sued. “We had done everything right. We were poised to be one of the best law schools in the country,” Safranek says. “But Monaghan’s greed, his desire to say, ‘Look what I’m going to do; I’m going to create this university in the middle of nowhere,’ ruined it all.”

Charlie Rice, a founding board member of Ave Maria law school and then a constitutional law professor at both Notre Dame and Ave Maria, agrees. “Monaghan just wanted to get rid of people who were not favorable to the move. He treated those guys outrageously. It was unconscionable.”

Rice adds that, before leaving the law school, he warned Monaghan that his idea for a strictly Catholic town to host the university was impossible. “Tom had this concept of a place with no pornography, no contraceptives,” he says. “I told him right up front that there is no way he could do that. It would be unconstitutional.”

What Monaghan has tried to create is a Catholic theocracy out of thin air. Those who bought homes there are now stuck with them because they have no value and can’t sell them, the law school is floundering and they don’t even have local police protection. It’s turned into a nightmare for all involved. Maybe he just didn’t pray hard enough.

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  • dhall

    Paradise indeed.

  • Larry

    Wish I could give a shit about this little pit of religious sewage and those that chose to move there but I don’t. Not even a little bit.

  • John Pieret

    As usual, one man’s heaven is other peoples’ hell.

    No doubt he is getting his legal advice from that bastion of legal acumen, the Thomas More Law Center.

  • raven

    Trouble in Tom Monaghan’s Catholic Paradise

    No big deal. Yet.

    Wait until they start burning heretics at the stake. And start a war with the Southern Baptist Protestants in the next town over.

    Who said the Dark Ages weren’t fun?

  • eric

    What Monaghan has tried to create is a Catholic theocracy out of thin air.

    Whatever Monaghan’s motives, it sounds like the development company’s goal has nothing to do with religion. It’s a straight-up dictatorship pursuing maximization of profits.

  • Chiroptera

    Who has legal title to the homes? If it’s the homeowners, then can the Florida legislature fix this problem by simply nullifying Monaghan’s claims (or at least the most egregious of them)? If it’s Monaghan’s corporation, can the Florida legislature fix this without resorting to “eminent domain”?

  • eric

    @6 – sounds like the homeowners do, however, the one interviewed implied that she (and the whole town) are ‘under water’ in terms of mortgage values, and so can’t realistically leave.

  • sugarfrosted

    @5 So it’s basically the use of religion by the far right. Just a way to swindle people.

  • bmiller

    Wow. The only significant commenter on the story from 3 years ago quickly lapsed into Anti-Semitic ranting about Jews in New Yorkl City and Hollywood.

    I guess Catholic Anti-Semitism has NOT disappeared. Oy, indeed!

  • bmiller

    Chiroptera: When a homeowner buys into a project with this kind of privatized government “community services district”, one accepts all of the covenants and obligations. For example, the Disney fauxtopia is part of a similar Community Services District.

    Such CSDs are often established to allow the development of urban service a good distance away from potential urban service providers. Which means the developer can take advantage of cheaper land, finance his infrastructure and possibly even use the CSDs as another “profit center”. All without a strong pesky local government overlooking things!

  • eric

    @10 – with one difference in this case. Regular CSDs must cede political control to the people after the first 10 years. In the Ave Maria case, they don’t ever. That sounds kind of unconstitutional to me; it is certainly not a limited or narrow suspension of ones’ rights.

  • Look, even if the stewardship law was repealed, or the home “owners” sued, the shareholder of Tom Monaghan’s Catholic Paradise, LLC has a closely-held religious belief that he can do whatever he wants.

    And that’s not even taking in to account that this is Florida we’re talking about. I mean, Florida’s state flag has Florida’s state flag in the middle of it, and that state flag has Florida’s state flag in the middle of it, and that state flag has Florida’s state flag in the middle of it, and Florida’s state animal is a python eating a bear! I know!

  • tbp1

    Although I’m appalled, I’m honestly having a hard time caring. The people who moved there were presumably adults, capable of making major

    life decisions. The town was called Ave Maria. It was developed by the sort of guy who gives predatory capitalism a bad name, who is obviously a theocrat, and only marginally sane. Before it was even built, he was bragging that they wouldn’t sell contraceptives and that any entertainment he didn’t approve of would be forbidden. What in the world were they expecting?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Our esteemed host shows even more of a time lag than usual – the linked story dates from 2011.

    Another story from the sidebar of the linked piece indicates little improvement as of 2013:

    Ave Maria Student Speaks Out About Homophobia, Harassment, and Death Threats.

    Thanks, Jeb!

  • “Popetemkin Village”?

  • eric

    The people who moved there were presumably adults, capable of making major life decisions.

    There’s a university there, so some of the screwed-over people include teens who probably didn’t see much more of the place before moving there than some snappy brochures and maybe a campus tour. The linked article discusses a basketball player who went there because they gave him a free ride and ended up having to practice at the local K-12 school because their facilities were not as promised.

  • Chiroptera

    eric, #11:

    Which is sort of in the direction of what I was asking. Can the legislature pass a law that explicitly disallows the Monaghan’s contractual arrangements and turns Ave Maria into a more normal HOA?

  • @ 13: “What in the world were they expecting?”

    Probably not a kind of Florida Inquisition.

  • Another affinity fraud. Nothing different here from Bernie Madoff and that failed libertarian “utopia” in Chile. The scammer uses some attribute as a way to boost the trust of their marks. “Hey, I’m a Catholic. Trust me!” Mix in a good dose of self-delusion (“Of course we’ll succeed; God is on our side”) and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

  • eric

    @17: I expect that if the contracts were all thought to be legal and properly executed at the time, it would have to be a court that overturns it, not the legislature. No ex post facto laws allowed.

  • eric “No ex post facto”

    [waves Harry Potter wand]

    Noex postfacto!

  • felidae

    Tommy Monaghan started out selling cardboard tasting pizzas to stoned out college students in the 60’s–if it weren’t for dope smokers he wouldn’t have been able to build his pizza empire

  • grumpyoldfart

    Catholics involved in shady deals? What a surprise!

  • Chiroptera

    eric, #20:

    My underststanding of the ex post facto clause is that it applies to punishing people for criminal acts, not things like regulating and limiting contract law. According to <a href=", “the ex post facto provision of the Constitution applies solely to criminal cases, not civil cases.”

    (I haven’t looked at the details of Calder to see whether they would apply to the case I proposed; I’m just noting that the concluding sentence in the article is close to what I understand about the ex post facto clause.)

  • Chiroptera

    Ugh. Botched the link: Calder v Bull.

    Damn, trying to type while the new advertisement regime in FTB bogs my browser down terribly!

  • steve84

    Just a test run for the rest of the country.

  • tbp1

    @#16: You are right, there are genuine victims here, but I was really thinking of people like the woman in the article who pulled up stakes, moved there and bought property because she wanted to live in a little Catholic theocracy. She got her wish. To anyone who paid any attention at all, the warning signs were a mile high and written in fire. All you had to do was look at how Monaghan made his money, and how he treated the people who worked for him, to realize how his private little fiefdom would be run. I’m not really feeling a lot of sympathy for those people.

  • A community of authoritarian Catholics finds out that living under the power of an authoritarian Catholic is extremely unpleasant. I don’t feel sorry for them. These are the same people who want to deny equality to gays, block abortion and access to birth control. They made their kingdom, now they can lie it.

  • leni

    These are the same people who want to deny equality to gays, block abortion and access to birth control. They made their kingdom, now they can lie it.

    True, but why would it matter? Even stupid assholes have rights.

  • dingojack

    John Pieret (#3) – or perhaps Monaghan engaged the services of Wolfram & Hart.

    🙂 Dingo

  • lorn

    Ave Maria can be, quite literally, translated as “Hail Mary”. The whole concept that this would be a good place to live and benefit people who bought into it was a very long shot, or, in football terminology, a ‘Hail Mary’ play. Give the guys credit for truth in advertising.

    Of course by Christian reckoning Satan is an angel and heaven is next door to hell and shares a common parking lot called earth. That Ave maria, Hail Mary, is also a ‘dance with the devil in the pale moonlight’. Their heaven sounds more like hell.

    That is always how it is. From a distance heaven is such a nice place. But as you start to move in you notice the devil in the details. Once you take up residence it isn’t always clear if the signs on the way were advertising paradise or perdition. Either way, once you move in, you are going to have trouble moving out.

    Wasn’t there a song about a hotel out west that covered this situation? Must have been my imagination.

  • “Tom had this concept of a place with no pornography, no contraceptives,”

    If the stats on which areas of the country use the most porn (ie, the most religious areas) are to be believed, this town must be suffering from a chronic shortage of tissues and hand lotion. Not to mention D-cell batteries.

  • ckdhaven

    “What Monaghan has tried to create is a Catholic theocracy out of thin air.”

    Yeah, but it worked with the Supreme Court, so I’m sure they’re not too worried about failing in a little town in Florida….

  • I’m sorry, I can’t express an opinion on this until Bill Donohue tells me what I’m supposed to think.

  • Leni,

    I understand. Your point is important and I do support their right to seek remedies, but I do so without feeling sorry for them. It’s just a fact of how I fell. They’re bullies who are shocked that they’re being bullied by fellow bullies that they empowered. I’ve had more than a bellyfull of the arch-conservative wing of Catholicism. It’s a cruel movement. Maybe if I come across a resident of Ave Maria who renounces not just the community but the dark ideology behind it, I’ll summon a bit of sympathy.