No Provision for the Crown - Reedy Creek Improvement District Story
by, 07-20-2011 at 08:32 PM
This week’s Samland installment was inspired Kevin Yee’s excellent article about the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s emergency services. From an urban planners point of view, the whole Reedy Creek story may be the most magical thing about the entire Walt Disney World project. We will never see anything like the District again. But what is the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) you may ask? Let's find out.Hello everyone, it's so good to be back on MiceChat with you. Over the past couple of weeks, I moderated an incredible panel discussion called Los Angeles: Invented Spaces or Authentic Places? at the Huntington Library, was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts - WDW Today (airing Friday, July 22), learning how to run the Terminator 2:3D attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, working on some urban planning projects (I can always use more work…I’m just saying…give me a call), and putting the finishing touches on my first book called "Walt and the Promise of Progress City," which will be released by Ayefour Publishing in the fall. More about the book in a future post. Now, on to today's SAMLAND!
The Reedy Creek Improvement District
When Walt Disney died in December 1966, many people believed that his death would mark the end of the Florida Project. However, through the sheer will of his brother, Roy, the project did live on. As a starting point, Roy decided to schedule screenings of Project Florida, the EPCOT film, to build civic interest. The first screening of the 24-minute film took place at 2:00 p.m. February 2, 1967, at the Park East Theater in Winter Park, Florida. Disney and the Orange and Osceola county delegations to the Florida legislature hosted the event. In the audience were over 900 business leaders, government officials, and members of the press. Their support would be necessary if the project was to become a reality. This would also be the first time the public saw images of Walt since his death. It was an emotional event.
From Roy’s perspective, the most important objective for the EPCOT film event was to make sure that the Florida legislature enacted the necessary ordinances to make the project happen. Disney wanted three things: In addition to the two interchanges, Disney wanted the state to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) as the overall administrator for the entire property. Within the boundaries of the RCID would be the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. Roy reminded the crowd, “We must have a solid legal foundation.” Disney was not seeking public funds for a private enterprise. They were seeking unprecedented control over their property. They wanted flexibility, not red tape.
One of the most perplexing problems facing Walt in his effort to build a community was the conflict between his desire to fully control the project and the rights of residents to vote. Disney explored a number of creative ways to deal with the governance issue. It was Florida attorney Paul Helliwell who was serving as lead legal counsel that first suggested that Disney create its own municipality. Walt was not so sure. In Project Future, Chad Emerson says, “Jules Stein, a friend who at the time was a lead executive of Universal Studios, had cautioned Walt against creating new cities as part of his Florida project. This caution resulted from trouble Stein had encountered after incorporating Universal City, a parcel of land the [Universal] Studios owned in the county outside the Los Angeles city limits.” You can see the Disney Burbank studio from the upper lot at Universal City.
However, Helliwell convinced Walt and Roy that creating their own municipality would give them the greatest control over the property. A municipality would allow for ways to limit the review of other agencies, therefore providing the greatest flexibility. It would allow them to control the utilities. In Married to the Mouse, Richard Fogelsong summed up a 1966 ERA report noting, “Both capitalism and democracy were problematic; each produced fragmentation of effort. The Disney solution was centralized administration—benign, paternalistic, based on expertise.”
When the issue of voting rights was raised, Helliwell assured the brothers that Florida law had already been tested. Marvin Davis said, “Walt’s thought was that in order to maintain the original philosophy of keeping this an experimental prototype, it would have to be something that was pretty much controlled by the company….This is something that we never really discuss very much publicly….In order to have the control that is necessary there, you would just about eliminate the possibility of having a voting community. Because the minute they start voting, then you lose control, and that’s the end of the possibility of experimental development.”
Walt and Roy agreed that the solution was to restrict voting rights to property owners. Using provisions provided under the Florida Drainage District Act, the landowners would elect a five-person Board of Supervisors. Each landowner would have one vote for every acre of land he owned above one-half acre. Since Disney was the sole property owner for much of the property, there would never be a conflict. Anybody who lived on the property would be leasing from Disney; therefore they would not have voting rights with regards to land use issues.
This solution had to be approved by the Florida Legislature, and the political climate was in Disney’s favor. The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) and the cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake were born on May 12, 1967, when Claude Kirk, Florida’s new Governor, signed the 481-page enabling bill. General Joe Potter said, “It gave us all the powers of the two counties in which we sit to the exclusion of their exercising any power.” He added, “Of course it let us issue bonds.” Potter noted that the only powers that still reside with bodies outside of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake “are the taxing power of Orange County, the sales tax of the state, and the inspection of elevators.” The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that the RCID could issue tax-exempt bonds for public projects even though Disney was the sole beneficiary.
Richard Fogelsong described “a twin-tiered government, with two general-purpose local governments on the bottom and a special-purpose district on top.” The benefit was that “the RCID controls both tiers: the forty-seven residents in the two cities are trusted, supervisory-level Disney employees, and the special-district government is controlled by the landowner, Disney.” The purpose for having the two cities was to create an environment where all of the land was within the city limits of a municipality. The residents could not vote to incorporate those areas outside of any boundary. They already live within a municipal boundary. In Florida, only a popularly elected government could regulate building codes and land use. Since Disney controlled the cities, they controlled the planning and zoning authority. Fogelsong called the arrangement, “A Vatican with mouse ears.”
How unprecedented was this action? The Governor turned to Roy and said, “Mr. Disney, I’ve studied the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It’s very comprehensive. I noticed only one omission. You made no provision for the crown.”
The RCID is the multi-jurisdictional organization responsible for the governance of the Walt Disney World Resort property. While the RCID is based on the legal foundation of a special utility district, it has morphed into something never seen before, a private/public agency with more powers than most governments in the United States.
When the time came to build in Florida, one of Walt’s highest priorities was to avoid the incompatible surrounding land uses that came with Disneyland in Anaheim. Walt was not going to repeat that mistake again. He wanted to control the edges. This time he had the resources and bought as much land as he could afford. The result was that Disney secretly gobbled up more than 43 square miles of Central Florida. With this much land, spread over two counties, Disney knew they would need to find some way to govern the property in order to have maximum flexibility. They could not be limited to working through existing governmental agencies. The experimental nature of the EPCOT project demanded a new approach.
When the Project Florida film was first shown to the public during the February 2, 1967, press event, Roy Disney first suggested the creation of this special agency. The Disney staff and Florida Legislators drafted the formation papers for the RCID in 1967 to manage the property. According to Donn Tatum, “An essential ingredient of a Community of the Future is that it always remain in a state of becoming.” Not only did the Florida Legislature create the RCID, they also incorporated the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista under Chapter 298 of the Florida statues. Matthew Arnold noted, “Chapter 298 required the circuit court to grant approval of this resource management district once the requesting landowners met certain rudimentary requirements. Once permitted, the new district, named for the major waterway that flowed through the property, encompassed not only Disney’s property, but also those circumscribed areas still owned by holdout landowners.”
Donn Tatum described the RCID: “In essence, a composite of special assessment, improvement and taxing districts already provided for under existing Florida laws, each of which now provides for a separate and independent district under separate governing bodies.” The result is “the effect of combining the services these districts perform within a single District under a single governing body.”
The legislation created three governmental agencies that would oversee the development of the 27,400-acre Disney property with the RCID in the lead. The RCID was originally created primarily to deal with flood control, drainage, and pest control issues. However, the unique agreement granted authority over a much broader range of issues, such as building and maintaining roadways, utility and sewer systems, public transit and public safety services, and regulating the zoning and building codes. Like other public agencies, the RCID could also issue bonds. They even had authority to approve a nuclear power reactor as long as it followed federal guidelines.
One of the few things the RCID cannot do is to regulate schools. Schools were not an issue in the first phase due to the very small permanent population. Nevertheless, Walt planned to build schools in EPCOT, and he was very interested in reinventing the educational system to “welcome new ideas so that everyone who grows up in EPCOT will have skills in pace with today's world.”
All three governmental agencies, the RCID and the two cities, are required to comply with the Florida Local Government Comprehensive Planning and Development Regulation Act. In 1965, Marvin Davis and his team drafted the original development plan, which guided the development of the Magic Kingdom theme park, resorts, golf courses, plus a city that combines residential, commercial, industrial uses plus the infrastructure to support all of this. That plan outlined how Disney World would be surrounded by a large greenbelt and be protected from the outside world. This would not be a sequel to Anaheim. This would be a whole new production. It may be hard to believe today, but the RCID was more than 16 miles from the nearest major urban development at the time.
The RCID is governed by a document called a comprehensive plan, which is the primary document that regulates issues such as land use, conservation, urban design, infrastructure, and other factors that add to the character and quality of life within a community. This document is required by state law and is intended to ensure the local agency is protecting the quality of the environment and providing for the necessary infrastructure for a resort the size of a medium sized city. The general plan is like a blueprint for the future. Author Bill Fulton said, “The idea of the comprehensive plan is that the future physical form of a community should be envisioned and laid out in a forward looking and wide-ranging document, often accompanied by maps and other graphic representations of the community’s physical form.” The fundamental purpose of land use planning is resource allocation. Land has an intrinsic value that can be amplified through development or preservation. A comprehensive plan is long-range policy planning tool that informs policymakers and all interested parties the best path to maximize those assets.
The 1965 Davis plan guided the development through the resort’s opening in 1971. The RCID drafted its first comprehensive plan in 1974, when phase one of the project was completed. In keeping with the experimental nature of the Walt Disney World project, the RCID Comprehensive Plan predated the state’s mandatory planning regulations, which were not put in effect until 1975.
The primary function for the comprehensive plan is to govern the location and intensity of land uses. In 1974, as it is now, the RCID was fortunate because there was little concern about conflicting land use like a government would have in a traditional city. Here, one owner owns much of the property and intergovernmental relationships have been firmly established. The planning process does take into consideration the impact of internal changes on the surrounding communities. The RCID planning process has always been meant to be collaboration between regional and local agencies.
The RCID plan became the model for other Florida communities. At the time, the information would fit onto one map; today, the RCID plan uses more than 40 maps. The plan was modified in 1979 to meet the State’s updated standards.
Throughout that first decade, the plan served the RCID and Disney; however, by the mid-1980s, the company was about to enter a period of very rapid growth with the opening of EPCOT and the arrival of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. In 1988, consultants working with the RCID and Disney rewrote the plan with the expectation of having three theme parks and a much larger number of hotels, amenities, and second-tier attractions. Because of this effort, the state modified the land use regulations in 1993. The success of the resort meant that urban development around the RCID property was starting to encroach. This was the motivation for another comprehensive plan update that started in 1996 and was completed in 1999.
In 2004, Comcast was interested in buying The Walt Disney Company. Concerned about what this could mean, the Florida legislature authorized a study to look at issues related to a change in ownership of the property. The state identified options for ensuring adequate governance of the RCID, including codifying a process to recall RCID board members as well as increased oversight of the RCID’s operations. However, none of those changes were implemented when no deal was struck and the acquisition stalled.
A 2008 comprehensive plan update—still in effect in 2011—is based on nine goals, which are documented in the plan. The first goal is “to preserve the integrity of the natural environment; maintain convenient, efficient public services; minimize threats to health and safety; and control and direct future development through policies, principles and standards that support the potential for economic benefit.” The RCID must continue to “maintain a safe, convenient, efficient, and balanced transportation system to meet the multi-modal capacity requirements of existing and future development.”
Other goals include the RCID’s original primary purpose, which was “to provide water, sewer, solid waste, and stormwater management services to existing and future development within its boundaries in the most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sound manner possible.” They are also responsible for protecting and conserving the natural resources of the district. Since most of the property is tourist oriented, another goal is to “promote the creation of state-of-the-art vacation and recreational facilities; to maintain and expand access to these facilities; and to retain the visual, environmental, and psychological benefits provided by open space in the District.” Another goal is “to promote intergovernmental coordination with the two cities within its boundaries; the two counties in which it is located; other local governments in the immediate vicinity; and regional, state and federal governmental entities for the mutual benefit of all involved parties.” The RCID is also responsible for promoting “adequate public facilities to existing and planned development areas in a manner that is concurrent with the impacts of such development and efficient and consistent with available financial resources.” Finally, the RCID must “facilitate the provision of an adequate supply of affordable housing for any unmet affordable housing need generated by employment growth within the district.”
Well, folks, that's the Reedy Creek Improvement District in a nutshell. Disney's very own kingdom in Florida. The thought of roads, safety, sanitation, and governmental control probably never cross the minds of the vast majority of people who visit Walt Disney World, perhaps we've given you food for thought to consider just that on your next trip to Orlando.
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