Maggy Hurchalla, one of Florida's most prominent environmental activists, was found liable Wednesday for interfering with already-signed contracts. After eight days of testimony, the six-member Martin County Circuit Court jury awarded Lake Point Restoration more than $4.3 million in damages.
Hurchalla also will be required to pay court costs, which currently exceed $1 million, according to Lake Point officials. Lake Point, however, did not seek reimbursement of its attorney fees.
For the past five years, Hurchalla has sworn she was just an ordinary citizen voicing her concerns to Martin County commissioners that Lake Point had destroyed wetlands on its western Martin County property.
Lake Point denied her allegations, requesting a retraction and an apology. After she refused, the mine said Hurchalla had used improper methods to persuade three county commissioners to interfere in its state-permitted, 2,200-acre rock mine and water restoration project, and her actions had damaged the mine's business. Lake Point filed suit for tortious interference.
Lake Point had already filed a lawsuit on Feb. 5, 2013, against Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District for breaching a contract that would turn the former housing development property into a rock mine and public works project.
After only 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury -- comprising ordinary Martin County residents, three men and three women -- agreed with Lake Point. Hurchalla's attorneys stood momentarily motionless and silent on each side of Hurchalla after the verdict was read. A slight smile crossed Hurchalla's face as she dropped her gaze to the now-empty defense table before them.
As she left the courthouse, she was characteristically buoyant, chatting with a throng of supporters, some of whom had traveled from outside the county to show their support. Hurchalla vowed to appeal.
In her closing arguments, Hurchalla's attorney, Virginia Sherlock, told jurors that the right to complain to government officials is protected speech. Hurchalla had sent emails to commissioners' private email accounts to criticize the Lake Point project, which became the subject of another lawsuit Lake Point won for the county's violations of public records laws.
“The 'right to gripe', to petition your government, is found right next to the right to free speech,” Sherlock said. “That's how important it is; it's part of the First Amendment.”
In her emails, Hurchalla had told commissioners the project had been fast-tracked with inadequate studies, it was not following the rules, there was no benefit to Martin County, and that all the wetlands had been destroyed.
Trial testimony demonstrated that the areas on a conceptual drawing and on a Google map Hurchalla claimed had been wetlands, that had "suddenly disappeared” -- now a parking lot – on the Lake Point project -- were not actually wetlands. Environmental engineer Ed Weinberg, a soil scientist who investigated the area on foot, testified he took soil samples in 2009 and found the sites lacked wetland soil.
A true wetland must have three distinct elements -- hydric soil, specific types of plants and the appropriate hydrology (wetness) in order to meet state specifications, which cannot be determined by aerial photography alone, Weinberg explained.
Hurchalla's expert witness, ecologist Greg Braun, disagreed, saying he had identified the missing wetlands by using Google Maps and aerial photos; however, he also admitted he had never walked the site because Hurchalla said it was not necessary. His charge would have been $534, he added, explaining Hurchalla did not want to pay his fee.
The jury heard a snippet of a 2017 videotaped presentation by Braun on wetlands, “Little Wetland, Big Impact,” in which he told his audience then that identifying a wetland requires an on-site walk and examination and cannot be accurately done by aerial photography alone.
Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb suggested to the jury that Hurchalla had other motives for telling Braun not to visit Lake Point.
“Lake Point never blocked anyone from coming on site,” he said. “Ms. Hurchalla and her attorneys visited, he could have come with them. I suggest to you that the reason they did not want him to come out (to Lake Point) is that she knew he would have discovered that they were not wetlands.”
Loeb listed all those who had testified or had verified in writing that no wetlands had been destroyed on the Lake Point property, including Lisa Wischer, Martin County director of engineering; Deb Drum, the ecosystem restoration manager for Martin County; Don Donaldson, engineer and current deputy county administrator for Martin County; Nicki van Vonno, growth management director for Martin County; Jeff Kivett, South Florida Water Management District engineer and division manager, Environmental Restoration and Management for Palm Beach County; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“Ms. Hurchalla says all of these witnesses got it wrong,” Loeb said, “and she is the only one who got it right.”
Sherlock countered that the Army Corps of Engineers permit states that 60 acres of agricultural wetlands would be destroyed in creating the Lake Point public works project.
“A wetland is a wetland,” she said. “Maggy Hurchalla did not lie.”
An agricultural wetland, however, is not considered by Martin County rules or the state of Florida as a wetland to be delineated and protected, Loeb said, reminding jurors that Weinberg had compared an agricultural wetland to a rice paddy. Although the soil is wet, it is plowed regularly and farmed, Weinberg had told jurors.
On an enlarged Google Earth map of Lake Point's property, Loeb showed the jury the lush and deep green areas were numbered, appearing in stark contrast to the rock mine surrounding them.
“These wetlands, numbered 1 through 10,” he said, “have been protected, enhanced and improved by Lake Point.”
Loeb reminded jurors of SFWMD engineer Jeff Kivett's Power-Point presentation that outlined the benefits of the Lake Point project, designed to remove polluted water from the C-44 canal to clean it, which would complement the effectiveness of the C-44 reservoir by around 20 to 25 percent.
Removing the water that currently impacts the St. Lucie River estuary is another benefit, and after the public works project is completed, the water could be conveyed south or into Lake Okeechobee, or back into the C-44, depending on the circumstances.
The interlocal agreement between Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District guaranteed Lake Point the right to mine rock or perform other revenue-generating activities for 20 years, after which the property would be donated to the state -- only if Lake Point was successful in obtaining federal and state permits as a rock mine. After those permits were granted, Martin County would agree to rescind the development order and vacate the unity of title on Lake Point Ranches, an equestrian housing development under construction when Lake Point purchased the property in 2008.
Part of the deal was that Lake Point would convey 150 acres of preserve area protecting a bald eagle's nest on Kanner Highway to the SFWMD, which would then turn the property into a public works project.
Then-County Commission Chair Sarah Heard directed county staff during a January 2013 commission meeting not to process Lake Point's applications to vacate the unity of title on the property or to revoke the development order, although Lake Point had paid $320 in fees. The county kept the money, but did not process the applications. Without those, Lake Point's progress was blocked.
The county then ordered code enforcement action on the Lake Point project, not as a rock mine as it had been operating since receiving state and federal permits in January 2012, but as a housing development. A “cease and desist” order for work on the public works project was issued.
Hurchalla's emails to the private email accounts of Commissioners Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott had directed commissioners to “legally void” the Lake Point contract. Loeb had played videotaped depositions by all three commissioners, as well as videotapes of County Commission meetings from January and February 2013, when Lake Point was on the agenda, as the result of Hurchalla's emails and an article in the Palm Beach Post.
Jurors learned it was SFWMD that had asked Lake Point in 2010, during the major drought that caused West Palm Beach to nearly run out of water in 2011, if its project could be accelerated in order to possibly supply drinking water from the C-44 canal, convey it across their property to clean it, move it to the L-8 canal, then to the city's reservoir.
Lake Point retained American Water as a consultant, built a pilot project on its property and agreed to proceed, as long as the mine could get paid for the cleansed water, because it would no longer be able to use the property to mine rock. Mine officials had purchased the land for $48 million, and expected a return on their investment.
The pilot project exceeded expectations, and after Lake Point presented the tentative plan to the Palm Beach County Commission, the Palm Beach Post wrote the article that prompted Hurchalla to launch her secret campaign to get Lake Point's contracts canceled, Loeb told the jury.
The commissioners did not testify in person, because they had submitted sworn affidavits seeking Fifth Amendment protections. They all have been criminally charged with violating public records laws relating to the Hurchalla emails, a fact not revealed to jurors.
The videotaped snippets of commission meetings showed Heard calling the Lake Point project “environmental treachery.” Fielding asked the county staff to come back with a proposal to cancel the contract, and Scott made a motion (which was not seconded) “to shut this down.”
Their videotaped depositions, played for the jury, showed none of those same commissioners had read the agreements, or the DEP and Corps permits, or visited the Lake Point site. Said Fielding, “I haven't looked at any of those documents, at least not intentionally.”
Only a handful of emails back and forth to Hurchalla were recovered. One them, though, was recovered from Fielding's personal computer and signed "Deep Rockpit". Loeb quoted Hurchalla telling Fielding, “Don't worry about the environment. Don't worry about the money. Just cancel the contract.”
Loeb told the jury, “Don't be tricked that this is about the environment,” because there is a process to follow for the public to complain about any project, about any permit, he said, which would be expected of an environmentalist. Yet neither Hurchalla nor any of the commissioners had complained to the Army Corps or to the DEP or the SFWMD about anything at Lake Point.
Hurchalla also admitted to deleting emails she had sent to commissioners' private email accounts, keeping the ones she'd sent to their public email addresses.
“She got rid of the ones that would hurt her,” Loeb said, “and kept the ones that would help her. After litigation began, she deleted emails … she doesn't want you to see her true motives.”
Lake Point's suit had claimed $22 million in damages. Martin County paid $12 million and the estimated value of the SFWMD deal was $6 million, leaving about $4 million that Lake Point asked Hurchalla to pay. The exact figure, prepared by an expert economist was $4,391,708.
The jury awarded every dollar of that amount to Lake Point: $4,391,708.
Barbara Clowdus, who followed the Lake Point issue from its start, is editor and publisher of Martin County Currents.