Insider extra: Videos, records show how Disney publicly stripped DeSantis’ special district board of power

Disney special district predecessors passed agreements giving theme park giant maximum developmental power

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On Feb. 8, several dozen spectators took their seats inside the administrative offices of the Reedy Creek Improvement District to attend a previously-scheduled public meeting of the special taxing district’s board of supervisors.

After board members recited the Pledge of Allegiance and approved the previous meeting’s minutes, the board’s president took up the first of two agenda items that would ultimately give Disney enormous control over the development of its resort property while stripping away the special district’s future power.

Read the agenda for the Feb. 8 meeting of the RCID below:

On the very same day, hundreds of miles away in Tallahassee, Florida lawmakers were meeting during a special legislative session to consider a bill that would replace Reedy Creek’s Disney-controlled board with a panel appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

[FULL COVERAGE: DeSantis vs. Disney]

“Our first action today is to suspend our board meeting and open a public hearing for a second and final reading concerning the developer’s agreement that we reviewed at our last meeting,” Reedy Creek board president Larry Hames said.

See the second reading of the development agreement between Disney and RCID in the media player below:

Less than one minute later, with no detailed discussion and no spectators responding to Hames’ invitation for public comment, the five-member board unanimously approved the agreement that gives Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts more control over how it develops its property.

People witnessing the meeting that day, including a few journalists, likely did not grasp the significance of the board’s move based on limited comments made during the public hearing.

See the minutes from the Feb. 8 RCID meeting below:

Although it does not appear the Disney development agreement was posted on Reedy Creek’s website at the time, a legal notice published in the Orlando Sentinel prior to the meeting noted that “a copy of the proposed agreement can be obtained at Reedy Creek Improvement District’s offices”.

During the board’s previous public meeting, held two weeks earlier, Reedy Creek administrator John Classe summarized the proposed agreement with Disney in slightly more detail.

“This development agreement provides certainty to both RCID and Disney over the next 30 years requiring that any future development be consistent with the RCID comprehensive plan and land development regulations,” Classe said. “This development agreement meets all the statutory requirements set forth in Chapter 163 of the Florida Statutes.”

See the first reading of the development agreement between Disney and RCID during a Jan. 25 meeting below:

The board’s president then addressed spectators in the room.

“For those who aren’t familiar with this concept, this is the way development occurs for larger projects in Florida,” Hames said. “Just to let you know, this is pretty much a routine item.”

Board members asked only a few questions about the Disney development agreement during that Jan. 25 meeting.

“So I’m assuming the way this is written, it doesn’t change the way we currently do business?” board member Max Brito said.

Classe replied that it doesn’t.

“It basically memorializes how we’ve been doing business,” he added.

See the agenda for the Jan. 25 RCID meeting below:

Two weeks later, during the Feb. 8 meeting, the Reedy Creek board took up a second measure establishing restrictive covenants that, among other rights, gives Disney sole authority to dictate design and maintenance standards throughout the special district.

“The declaration is consistent with the board’s planning powers,” Classe said. “It is to guide and accomplish the coordinated, balanced and harmonious development of the land within the district in accordance with existing and future needs, and to memorialize that the district property will be used for valid government purposes to promote the general welfare of the district’s inhabitants and property owners.”

See the approval of the Declaration of Restrictive Covenants during a Feb. 8 RCID meeting:

With no questions or comments, the board unanimously approved the declaration of restrictive covenants and then adjourned the meeting.

The following morning, Reedy Creek recorded the 75-page development agreement and the 76-page declaration of covenant restrictions with the Orange County Comptroller.

Those documents were posted on the comptroller’s website where anyone could view them.

See the minutes from the Feb. 8 RCID meeting:

About seven hours later, after the agreements were recorded, the Florida House of Representatives approved a bill giving the state oversight of Disney’s special district by allowing DeSantis to appoint members to its board.

The next day, Feb. 10, the Florida Senate passed the same bill and sent it to the governor’s office.

DeSantis waited more than two weeks to sign the bill, which he did during a Feb. 27 ceremony at a Reedy Creek fire station.

“Today the ‘corporate kingdom’ comes to an end,” DeSantis said. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”

The governor was apparently unaware of the move made by the former Reedy Creek board 19 days earlier.

“Here you have Gov. DeSantis, a graduate of Harvard Law School,” News 6 political analyst and UCF history professor Jim Clark said. “You have all these lawyers the state has hired. You have lawyers in the Legislature. And every single one of them had missed what Disney had done.”

DeSantis’ appointees on the special district board, which legislators renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, acknowledged Wednesday that they only recently learned about Disney’s last-minute agreements with the former Reedy Creek board.

“I cannot tell you the level of my disappointment in Disney. I thought so much better of them,” CFTOD board member Ron Peri said. “This essentially makes Disney the government.”

The governor’s office issued a statement Wednesday addressing the agreements between Disney and the former Reedy Creek board.

“An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law,” said Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director. “We are pleased the new Governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.”

In a statement, Walt Disney World asserted the company acted properly.

“All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law,” the company said.

Clark said the courts will ultimately decide whether the agreements between Disney and the former Reedy Creek board are valid, but he believes Disney must be thrilled with their current victory.

“The (CFTOD) board ended up with things Disney didn’t want,” Clark said. “The board gets to run the roads, the sewers, the fire department, things that Disney is probably happy to get rid of.”

But the UCF professor thinks the latest twist in the governor’s fight against Disney could hurt DeSantis.

“A big part of his new book is about his victory over Disney World,” Clark said. “They’re going to have to put out a second edition of his book now. This is a real setback for the governor.”

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.