One Monday night last summer, during a meeting of the Sanford City Commission, Debbra Groseclose and another audience member got into a discussion. They spoke quietly, but Larry Dale objected.
Under Florida's Sunshine Law, he said, the two were obligated to speak on the record. Larry Dale is the mayor of Sanford. Groseclose sheepishly disclosed the conversation.
But Groseclose is not a public official. The Sunshine Law is meant to keep citizens informed of the actions of potentially furtive public officials. Dale turned the law on its head.
Bess Simons watched the exchange, disgusted. She wrote a letter to the Orlando Sentinel stating that the mayor made "a ludicrous statement and only serves to illuminate Dale's approach to and understanding of community involvement."
As the developers swarming Seminole County turn their attention to this last, best bastion of homespun Old Florida charm, Larry Dale's approach and understanding are quite possibly transforming the 35,000-population town for the next century. Dale plays a pivotal part in defining the vision for Seminole County's growth. If you want to understand Central Florida's planning -- or lack thereof -- get familiar with the hard, head-first philosophy of Larry Dale.
The subject of that meeting last summer was Dale's plan to hand a large part of the city's Fort Mellon Park, fronting Lake Monroe, to PRA Development and Management Corp. to build a 300-room hotel and convention center. Meant to jump-start the city's economy, the hotel is the most significant, controversial development posed in decades.
It's Dale's baby. He proposed it a year ago and, when faced with opposition, spearheaded a November referendum that validated the plan by a 55-45 percent margin. His efforts on this project and others have cemented his reputation.
"He's rather dominating in his approach to administration," says Pete Knowles, a former Sanford city manager. Knowles contends that Dale's alpha-dog act violates the city charter. And if the stars align just right, that complaint could cost the city dearly, although the mayor and current city manager scoff at such talk.
"He is the archetypal good ol' boy," says Doug Groseclose, Debbra's husband and a leader in the save-the-park movement. "He is also a bully. And once he has made up his mind he doesn't want anyone to confuse him with the facts."
Yet Dale friend and confidant Daryl McLain, a Seminole County commissioner, says the hotel referendum is Dale's greatest career accomplishment. "Without Larry Dale working on it, full time, for 90 days, it probably wouldn't have happened," McLain says. "He probably gave 100 speeches."
More like 300, Dale says. And he resents being called a bully. "Because I don't let people intimidate me," he says, "they will say I intimidate."
Standing 6-foot-3, weighing about 240 pounds, Sanford's mayor is bald, with a close-cropped gray beard redolent of Hemmingway. Partial to Honduran cigars, ball caps and mirrored shades, he carries himself like the steely proconsul of a newly conquered banana republic.
He's also gracious and direct. Though still mourning from the recent death of his mother, for whom he was chief caretaker, Dale is eager to recount his life as a pickup-truck-driving, airplane-flying, gun-toting adventurer. "I flew to Grenada right after we invaded," he says. "Mine was probably one of the first civilian airplanes to land there." He lets slip that he once played guitar at the Grand Ole Opry behind Hank Snow. He quotes the Bible.
Larry Alvin Dale was born on Feb. 3, 1948, in Prentiss, Miss., the only son of Harold and Marjorie F. Dale, who ran a dairy farm with about 85 cows.
Harold taught his son to shoot straight and to be fastidious about safety. "My first gun was a .410 shotgun, a breech-loader," Dale recalls. "My father taught me, from day one, to carry it unloaded, with the breech open. One day when we were hunting, moving to another part of the field -- I was still carrying it with the barrel down," but it was loaded. Larry tripped on a root and the gun fired into the dirt behind his father.
"My father turned around and took the gun from me," Dale recalls. "He said, ‘Your hunting is done for the year.'"
Dale moved to Florida in 1965. Although he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball and track teams, the young Dale concentrated on flying lessons. His father had been a fighter-pilot flight instructor with the U.S. Army Air Corps.
At the University of Florida Dale majored in agronomy. "I didn't want to work in an office," he says. After graduation, he briefly worked for the USDA before joining his father's fledgling real-estate company. "I took my test, got my `Realtor's` license, but I quickly saw I was attracted to the building side rather than the sales side."
Dale built houses and married Cynthia Susanna Nyiri.
One day in 1974 Dale heard a college friend say, "For a penny I'd go to Alaska." Dale "reached over and dropped a penny in his hand," and the two were off.
The Alaska pipeline was under construction, and the highly paid workers needed housing. Dale and his friend built townhouses for two-and-a-half years. Dale's first daughter, Monica, was born there.
From there the family decamped to Casper, Wyo., where Dale's second daughter, Jennifer, was born. Dale built homes there for a year before returning to Florida, where a church friend had money to invest in the construction of 16 or more homes a year. "That was a big break," Dale says.
Building houses in volume eventually wore on Dale. Seven years ago he got out of building in favor of lot development, the most political part of the development process. And in that capacity, Dale has made his share of enemies.
Sue Eberle, a home owner on the other side of the river, holds Dale responsible for the flooding in her subdivision and imparts dark motives to him. But not everybody thinks Dale is insensitive. Not even all anti-development Democrats.
Bob Petree was Lake Mary city attorney in the 1980s and remembers disagreeing with developers on a regular basis. Dale was different, he says. "On his developments, he went out of the way to be environmentally sensitive," Petree says. "He wasn't putting houses two feet apart just to maximize profits." Petree says he'd oppose Dale on the hotel project, but that Dale's ethics were impeccable.
When he ran for mayor of Sanford in 1996, Dale boasted of his contacts, earning an endorsement from the Sentinel. He came in second in the primary and won the runoff handily on a platform calling for growth, a reformed police department, airport expansion and an end to the swarms of "blind mosquitoes" plaguing the waterfront.
Beneath that platform is a philosophy that is ascendant but hardly universal. Dale is a central figure within the matrix of developers, politicos, engineers and builders whose concept of Seminole County, now largely realized, is a sprawling bedroom/mall community spiced with high-tech and hospitality. It is a vision that has brought prosperity but also pollution, flooding and traffic. Sanford is among the last remaining laggards to that vision. McLain says the biggest hurdle Dale has faced has been "getting that Old Sanford mentality turned around to a more progressive vision."
Indeed, the close ties among the county's high rollers are among the chief complaints of Dale's opponents. Dale answers McLain's cell phone when a reporter calls McLain for this story; McLain suggests that fellow County Commissioner Randy Morris be counted among Dale's best friends, along with Seminole County Republican Executive Committee chair Jim Stelling and lawyer Ken Wright, whom Dale placed on the Airport Board in 1997. He chairs it now.
Wright also represents the developers of a 50-acre apartment complex on Paola Road between County Road 46A and Rinehart Road, which Dale helped push through over neighbors' protests.
"We most assuredly don't need those apartments looking down on us," says Nell Snow, one of Dale's most persistent critics. Snow, who retired to Sanford in 1987, is so upset with her mayor that she quit the church they had shared, Westview Baptist.
Dale sings bass in the choir there. ("I'm really a baritone," he says.) When asked his greatest achievement he instantly says raising his daughters in a biblical way. His greatest mistake? A pause. "My divorce," he says, "and the effect it had on my children."
In 1993 Dale remarried, to the former Stephanie Anne Roberts. At 23, she was younger than Dale was when he was first married.
Dale ties his leadership to God and governs with the zeal of the imperfect but forgiven. He quoted scripture in support of the waterfront hotel plan. Of the separation of church and state, Dale declares "there is no such thing," and he lets it be known that he believes in an angry God.
"God is not this tolerant person," Dale says. "He's not a person at all. He's a very intolerant being. When people coined the term ‘God-fearing,' they were serious."
Dale doesn't fear the likes of Snow. But Snow, who's nearly 81, would not think of cowering before Dale. "I made a promise to him when that `apartment vote` was over. ‘I will make your life miserable as long as you're in office,'" she says. "I'm just keeping my promise."
Dale has given her plenty of ammunition.
In September 1997, the mayor intercepted a letter to city commissioners from then Sanford Airport director Steve Cooke. Dale was peering over Cooke's shoulder regarding airport finances. Though the relatively innocuous letter was hand-delivered to the city manager and addressed to the commission, Dale said that as the commission's liaison to the airport he was within his authority to take it. "It wasn't mail. It was in-house material," Dale told the Sentinel. "What's the big deal?"
Dale engineered Cooke's firing a few months later. The current city manager, Tony VanDerworp, was hand-picked by Dale, despite his lack of the prerequisite five years' experience, according to Knowles, the former city manager.
"I competed straight up with over 100 applicants," VanDerworp counters.
Sanford has a council/city manager form of government. The mayor in theory has no more power than any of his fellow commissioners, who are supposed to set broad policy and "get out of the way" so the manager can implement it.
Knowles asked the Florida City and County Manager's Association to investigate the way things work in Sanford. At a meeting two weeks ago, the association decided to take no action until after a referendum, to be held in March, in which citizens will be asked to adjust the charter to reflect a more perfect manager/council system.
Still to come is the associations' report, and if that declares that Sanford is acting outside of its charter, Knowles maintains, the city will be open to lawsuits for any official action since Dale's election.
Dale scoffs. "They aren't a regulatory body," he says of the association. He notes that Knowles recently consulted for a city golf course lease-holder who's suing the city.
Yet even without Knowles' coup d'état theory, Dale's legacy is far from certain. Early this month, Pizzuti Development announced plans to build its own 300-room hotel in Heathrow, at the new interchange of County Road 46A and Interstate 4. Experts think the area isn't big enough yet to support two such venues.
But Dale adamantly believes that the waterfront hotel will be built. McLain, too, is a believer. "The 21st century belongs to Sanford," he says. "There's going to be a renaissance."
That may be true. But if the 21st century belongs to Sanford, it is far from certain that Sanford belongs to Larry Dale.
"You can't ever please everyone," Dale says, leaning against his Ford F-150, staring down into a bed of targets and a few spent 12-gauge shells. "If you try to, you can't get anything done. But you can't get in trouble doing what's right. You'll have enemies. Jesus had enemies."