Ray Judah ‘Set Bar High’
Earlier this month, Ray Judah stepped down after having served our area as District 3's Commissioner for a nearly a quarter of a century. During that time he helped shepherd Lee County through two periods of unparalleled growth and a new era of environmental awareness. With baseball and 20/20 controversies swirling during his last few years in office, some may have forgotten all the positive things he helped create and the fact that – without his input – many of the parks and conservation areas residents now take for granted would likely be covered by so much concrete jungle.
Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation Director Rae Ann Wessel was a private consultant when she first met Judah in 1987.
"He was working as Lee County's first environmental planner back then – a job he was hired for in 1983 – and he saw a way that he could do so much more,” she said. "At that time – the late 80's – this county was going through a big growth boom, there was a lot of money, and everyone was scrambling to build roads and such for all these new people. Ray saw that he could bring his planning experience and his knowledge of natural systems together and be a voice that hadn't been on the
commission before. And he cared about what was going to happen to this county – that's the most important thing. He really cared enough to want to make a difference.”
Not only was Lee growing by leaps and bounds in 1988, its citizens – and most of the country for that matter - were in the midst of awakening to a new era of environmental awareness. Having finally realized the importance of our natural resources to the overall economy of Southwest Florida, residents were pushing for the establishment of conservation areas and regulations to protect manatees and water quality. All of that combined created the perfect political storm for the 35-year-old Judah, who had recently earned his 'green' stripes by re-writing the Conservation Coastal Zone element of the county's Comprehensive Plan.
"It was the perfect situation for him, and he relished the chance to have that role to represent the community,” Wessel said.
Commissioner John Manning was serving on the Board of County Commissioners at the time, having been appointed by then-Governor Lawton Chiles in March of '88 after Porter Goss left to run for Congress.
"I remember when Ray was elected in November of that year, and we served together until 2000,” he said. "During that time, there was a tremendous growth push in Lee – people were literally coming here by the thousands – and we had to build infrastructure for all of them. Growth management in those days was like trying to tackle Jell-O.”
Wessel was one of many consultants that the county hired to help with that planning, and she told us that it was that work that laid the foundation for what would become known as Conservation 20/20.
"We started mapping out river corridors and flow-ways because there was a huge disconnect between road projects being planned and what would happen to our natural resources,” she said. "When you put in a big road like Summerlin, you lose half a mile on either side to commercial development - and some of these roads were being planned right through nature preserves.”
Through that planning, Judah helped Manning and their fellow commissioners create programs like 20/20 and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed - otherwise known as CREW – a non-profit organization that Judah co-founded in 1989 to coordinate the land acquisition and management of the 60,000 acre headwaters of Estero Bay. The fledgling commissioner also became involved with Lee County students – helping a group of local high schoolers' environmental club, called the 'Monday Group', to establish Manatee Park in eastern Lee County.
Conservation 20/20 – which became controversial following Lee Clerk of Courts' Charlie Green's 2011 audit – was anything but that in 1996, when Lee voters overwhelmingly approved a property tax increase by up to .5 mils to fund the purchase and protection of environmentally sensitive lands. With the rate of development increasing every day, a land use study in 1994 found that only 10% of Lee County land was set aside for conservation though other south Florida counties had between 40% to 85%. This led to a group of citizens lobbying for a county-based land acquisition program that was championed by Judah and has resulted in the creation of nearly 50 preserves – including Matanzas Pass Preserve – all accessible to the public (for a complete list, see www.conservation2020.org).
Judah also made an impact on our island directly in those early years before incorporation.
"In 1991, when the Historic Society got organized, Sue Davison called Ray Judah to help us and he stayed with us until we moved the Historic Cottage to its present location and has maintained his interest in us to the present day,” Dr. Jean Matthews wrote in 2004. "In addition, Ray has been instrumental in getting the boardwalks done in the Matanzas Preserve and also helped the Rotary Club get the observation deck completed.”
In the late 90’s, Judah championed re-purposing trash for energy. Through his efforts, the county created a waste energy facility that can provide enough electricity to power 40,000 homes. That facility, which was honored by Power Engineering International as the ‘Best Project in the World’ in 1995, has remained state-of-the-art and has resulted in Lee County having one of the most successful recycling programs in the state - exceeding the 75% recycling goal set for Florida
In the early 2000's, Judah came up against his biggest opponent yet – Big Sugar – when he realized that nutrient-laden runoff from the cane fields that had washed into Lake Okeechobee was being allowed to flow down the Caloosahatchee River - wreaking havoc along the way. From the time he first became aware of the problem – something for which he has often credited a story written by the Sand Paper's Mark List – he has doggedly fought for the sugar industry to pay for its share of restoration efforts and for the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers to hold them accountable.
"For decades, sugar companies have shaped U.S. farm policy to enrich corporate profits at the expense of the south Florida ecosystem and public taxpayers,” Judah wrote in early 2006. "The sugar subsidy formula is insidious in that we as taxpayers are enabling the sugarcane industry in south Florida to destroy the Everglades, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and coastal estuaries.... A sustainable Everglades Agricultural Areas (EAA) that includes land for water storage and overflow, as well as for agriculture and compacted development in the glades communities of Belle Glade, Clewiston, Pahokee and South Bay, would ensure meaningful restoration of Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and coastal estuaries and tremendous economic opportunities and growth for the residents and businesses that deserve a healthier life style and long term prosperity.”
Judah also spent the latter half of his political career campaigning for a fairer distribution of the water that the District and the Corps send down the river, resulting in much more media and citizen’s groups’ attention being paid to the matter and planting the issue prominently in the public eye. He did the same thing by drawing the public’s attention to the pollution being caused by phosphate mining in Charlotte County, resulting in the company responsible - Mosaic - bring forced to settle a lawsuit earlier this year by donating nearly 4,200-acres for permanent conservation and agreeing to preserve about 130 acres of land that was previously eligible to be mined.
Because of his efforts to safeguard the environment, he has received numerous awards over the years, including "Conservationist of the Year” from the Florida Audubon Society in 1984 and 1996, "Champion of the Environment” by Gulfshore Life Magazine and the "Pathfinder Award” from the Urban Land Institute in 2003, and "Conservationist of the Year” from the Florida Wildlife Federation in 2007. In 2011, The Everglades Coalition honored Judah with its prestigious "James D. Webb Award” - given every year "to a public official who has made an outstanding contribution to the Everglades”.
In 2010, Judah was selected by the bicycle and pedestrian advocate group, BikeWalkLee, to receive its first award when they recognized him as a "Champion for Complete Streets'.
"Ray has fought to ensure that biking, walking and mass transit has had a place at the transportation table -- and that has helped ensure that bikers, walkers and those who rely on public transportation have had a place to enjoy on our roadways,” BikeWalkLee’s Ken Gooderham said in August of that year.
In an attempt to diversify Lee's reliance on its traditional three-legged economy of tourism, construction and agriculture, Judah spearheaded efforts to bring new industries to the area – including a company that can create fuel from algae in 2008 and a biodiesel plant in 2009. Seeking to protect Lee's rivers from nutrient-laden runoff, Judah helped craft Lee County's fertilizer ordinance in 2008. He was also instrumental in expanding the Southwest Florida International Airport in 2005.
Both Wessel and Manning told us they are proud of the work they did with Judah over the years, and think there will be a future for him in Lee County.
"I think that what we did was good for Lee County,” Manning said. "He and I both decided that we needed to have a balanced approach to growth management and conservation, and I think it worked for this area.”
Wessel agreed, saying that Judah ‘set the bar pretty high’ for future commissioners to follow.
"Ray was someone who passionately cared about his community - this wasn’t just a job to him,” she said. "And it was so much more than just environmental stuff he had a vision, and he was able to contribute to this area in so many positive ways.”
"I definitely think there is another role for him here,” Wessel continued. "This county still needs him, and I believe he will be back.”
Keri Hendry Weeg