ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — In their final days of controlling the Reedy Creek improvement district’s board, Disney executives and attorneys found a way to poison the authority of the incoming members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and effectively oversee the area’s development.
On Feb. 8, 2023, as the Florida House was passing legislation to give DeSantis his new power, Reedy Creek’s board members signed a development agreement with the company that allowed Disney maximum developmental power over its territory for the next 30 years.
According to the new board members, who are now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight board, and their attorneys, Disney is allowed the maximum possible density and building heights inside Walt Disney World. Other property owners will need Disney’s permission to expand within the district, and they and Reedy Creek leaders will need to seek Disney’s approval if they made any aesthetic changes to their properties within the district.
The district is also not allowed to permit advertisements of any companies that compete with ones that operate within Reedy Creek, board members said.
“We lose control over everything other than to maintain the roads and maintain the infrastructure,” one board member said.
Board members said they found out about the agreement after their appointments.
Both they and their newly appointed attorneys called the agreement various synonyms of insane and extreme, and said its sheer scale should make it null and void.
Particular focus was paid to one section that board members said places certain restrictions on the district until 21 years after the death of the last surviving descendant of King Charles, or until Disney abandons the resort.
“We gave governmental control to Disney,” Brian Aungst summarized.
Other board members were harsher in their assessment.
“Disney tried to be king for a day,” Chairman Martin Garcia said, referencing the company’s most famous park.
Board members hired multiple politically-connected law firms to represent them and analyze the agreement, and discussed bringing on as many as four different firms to battle the deep-pocketed company as they attempted to unwind it. Garcia referenced taking it all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
Some board members said they hoped Disney executives and attorneys would be willing to come to the table and reach a compromise agreement before any legal steps were taken, though others weren’t as optimistic.
Disney’s communications team did not answer multiple questions sent to them about whether they’d compromise or fight, and whether this was the reason the company chose to hand over control of Reedy Creek without a fight. However, they did email a requested statement summarizing their position:
“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,” a spokesperson said.
WFTV worked with an independent attorney who specializes in government law to analyze the agreement Wednesday morning. Upon initial review, the attorney said the agreement appeared to be valid.
“I’m struggling to find a reason why it’s unlawful,” the attorney said, noting the type of agreement struck was normal between large developers and governments, it was properly noticed and Reedy Creek’s leadership willingly entered into it.
In a follow-up conversation Wednesday night after additional review of the documents, the attorney agreed with the board that the separate covenant restrictions Reedy Creek agreed to that last until the king’s descendant dies were unusual and potentially illegal.
The attorney cautioned they could not predict a judge’s interpretation of the law but said the agreement would likely be fought in federal courts, which would be viewed as friendlier to Disney than the DeSantis-influenced Florida justice system.
They also said Reedy Creek and Florida lawmakers could run into constitutional issues if they tried to undo the agreement since governments can’t impair existing contracts.
Despite setting the initial stages of a legal battle, some Reedy Creek board members said their focus was on upholding democracy and the will of the voters, not fighting Disney.
“We’re not taking an adversarial position to Disney,” Aungst said. “We are defending ourselves and we’re defending the people, and we’re going to be prepared for what the next steps are. My hope is that those next steps are collaborative.”
WFTV contacted DeSantis’ office to ask if his team was aware of the Feb. 8 agreement before the appointments were made.
A senior staff member in the governor’s office said they were not aware of this agreement until Reedy Creek’s lawyers recently notified them of their findings, and the office views the agreement as legally void.
They said they had been somewhat caught off-guard by Disney’s willingness to comply with handing the district over, and they weren’t surprised the company had made a move under the radar.
They added taxpayer money would not be used in this battle, as the district is funded by taxes Disney and other companies in the district pay.
Taryn Fenske, communications director for the Office of Governor DeSantis, released the following statement:
“The Executive Office of the Governor is aware of Disney’s last-ditch efforts to execute contracts just before ratifying the new law that transfers rights and authorities from the former Reedy Creek Improvement District to Disney. An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law. We are pleased the new Governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.”
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