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.