Tuesday, April 18, 2023

How Disney Outplayed DeSantis...Again

On Monday DeSantis held a press conference to announce the vengeance he seeks after the Mouse House pulled a fast one and basically stripped his politicized governing board of their power. 

Most of the headlines coming out of that news conference focused on the fact that DeSantis threatened to build a prison next to a family theme park. Yeah, like that is some kind of genius political move for the guy who claims to be all about protecting the young ones. 

But I spent some time doing a deeper dive into what DeSantis might be up to - especially after reading a piece by Jonathan Turley where he claimed that "Disney may have been too clever by half. The 'Hail Mickey' play appears fundamentally flawed."

In terms of the big picture, it's important to keep in mind that when the special district was established back in 1967, it was set up to act like a local municipal government. Disney wanted to develop it's attractions, but the county governments didn't have the resources to support it. So the purpose of the district was to act as it's own municipal government - collect taxes, regulate development, and build infrastructure. 

In light of that, there are some things you should know about the agreements that were signed by the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) and Disney before the DeSantis folks took over. First of all, there were actually two agreements: (1) a declaration of restrictive covenants and (2) a development agreement. 

The covenants were designed primarily to protect the properties OWNED BY DISNEY (land, facilities, and trademarks). They restrict the properties to their current use and include a long list of prohibited uses. The district also must seek Disney’s comment before altering the properties and can’t use Disney’s name or trademarks. This is the agreement that contains the clause about being valid in perpetuity - or if perpetuity is declared illegal, until 21 years after the death of the last surviving descendant of King Charles III.

The development agreement codifies a comprehensive 10-year plan that was finalized last summer - before this whole bru-haha with DeSantis began. It serves as a blueprint to guide development through 2032 and ensures that future boards will honor funding commitments for the planned infrastructure.

All of this makes sense. Any corporation would do whatever is necessary to ensure that their land, facilities and trademarks are protected. With the development agreement, Disney was simply seeking stability for long-term planning efforts. The fact that DeSantis and his minions are so appalled by these agreements indicates that they had plans to usurp Disney's control of it's brand/properties. 

While DeSantis didn't distinguish between these two agreements during his press conference on Monday, he did cite a Florida statute on development agreements when suggesting that the legislature would take up a bill nullifying the actions of the previous RCID. He's going to run into three problems with that:

1. He has no standing.
[I]n order to challenge the contract, you have to have legal standing, said J.C. Planas, a Miami lawyer who teaches about Disney’s special district in his local government law class at a South Florida law school...

“A development order like this can’t be challenged,” Planas said. “There’s no standing on behalf of the governor. There’s no standing on behalf of the new board. The only people standing are the residents [all Disney employees] because it’s a development agreement.

2. Included in the development agreement is this statement:

Modification or cancellation of all or any portion of this Agreement without either the express written consent of Master Developer [Disney] or in accordance with Section 163.3235, Florida Statutes, shall be considered per se a modification or cancellation of the allowable uses and entitlements to Master Developer's legal and equitable interest in the Property. 

I'm not a lawyer, but that seems to indicate that, should the agreement be cancelled, Disney (who owns the property) would consider it a cancellation of the district's use of their property. I'm not sure what the ramifications of that would be, but it could lead to the collapse of the district's special status.

3. In crafting the development agreement, Disney and RCID carefully followed Florida law. After developing the comprehensive plan, it was submitted to the state for approval - which was granted by the DeSantis administration on July 15, 2022.

Other than his threats to nullify the development agreement, DeSantis used his press conference to throw out a myriad of actions he could take as governor to punish Disney - build a prison, raise their taxes, inspect their rides, etc. Other than being completely vindictive, they are simply nuisances to a corporation like Disney. 

Oh...and in case you're wondering whether the Mouse House is cowering in fear at the threats made by the big bad governor, they released this announcement on Monday after the DeSantis press conference:

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