DeSantis-appointed board sues Disney over Reedy Creek theme park's 'backroom deal'

"No other private business in the State of Florida enjoyed the advantages Disney had through its control of the RCID."

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

On Monday, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board sued the Walt Disney Company to void a development agreement reached by the company’s previous board that reeks "of a backroom deal."

The lawsuit stated that following the Florida Legislature’s establishment of an independent board to govern the former Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), "Disney covertly cobbled together a series of eleventh-hour deals with its soon-to-be-replaced puppet government" in an effort to "stymie Florida’s elected representatives." 

"Disney hoped to tie the hands of the new, independent Board and to preserve Disney’s special status as its own government in the District for at least the next thirty years. These agreements reek of a backroom deal—drafted by Disney with the acquiescence a lawyer who represented both Disney and the District, set for hearing without proper notice, and hustled through a compliant Disney-controlled Board that Disney knew would not dwell long on the issue," the lawsuit, filed on Monday in Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Orange County, Florida, stated. 

"But perhaps out of haste or arrogance, Disney’s deals violate basic principles of Florida constitutional, statutory, and common law. As a result, they are null and void—not even worth the paper they were printed on," the lawsuit added.

The Florida Governor Ron DeSantis-appointed board, the lawsuit stated, has taken measures to bring "accountability, transparency, and normalized, even-handed administration to the government Disney used to run," including hiring an outside financial advisor, retaining an independent outside counsel, authorized the drafting of fire and building code enforcement provisions, and the hiring of an urban planner.

"When the new Board took office, it expressed to Disney its desire to work together to achieve a win-win solution that would protect Disney’s economic investment in the District while at the same time usher in a new era of accountability, transparency, and cooperation with the District’s other occupants and neighbors. Disney would have none of that," the lawsuit read.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board stated that upon the creation of the RCID in 1967 and the subsequent building of Disney World and Epcot, "Disney’s rule was absolute."

They stated that to be elected to the five-person board of supervisors, the person must own at least one acre of land within the district, which Disney made impossible.

"No individual owned one or more acres of property within the RCID, which meant that no one could qualify to sit on the RCID’s Board of Supervisors. Indeed, Disney sought to limit residents in the District altogether, turning EPCOT into a theme park instead of a residential community and de-annexing the town of Celebration so the town’s inhabitants could not dilute Disney’s control," the lawsuit read.

Instead, Disney would grant a parcel of land on a temporary basis to those deemed suitable, and then nominate them to the board. "Because Disney owned almost all of the land within the RCID, Disney’s chosen candidate won election to the Board every time."

"No other private business in the State of Florida enjoyed the advantages Disney had through its control of the RCID."

Following the passing of legislature in February that would appoint a board selected by DeSantis, Disney conducted an "11th-hour rush to insulate itself from the authority of the new Board," that "produced agreements that are riddled with procedural and substantive flaws."

On February 8, two days after HB 9 which reformed the RCID into the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, the RCID "approved and adopted a 30-year, Disney-designed development agreement" and a "declaration of restrictive covenants" between itself and Disney.

"In their haste to seek to insulate Disney from meaningful government regulation, Disney and the RCID failed to comply with basic statutory notice requirements. And the RCID lacked authority to enter into any development agreement because it had not enacted an ordinance governing the process for doing so, as is required by Florida law," the lawsuit stated.

Restrictive Covenants signed by the RDIC "prohibit the District from altering its own property without Disney’s review and consent," with the Development Agreement would similarly require Disney’s permission from other property owners within the district to obtain approval from Disney to do so.

The lawsuit accuses Disney of failing to provide notice of a public hearing in regard to the Development Agreement, failing to enact an ordinance that would allow a local government to enter a development agreement, lacing authority and jurisdiction to enter into a development agreement, violations of the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes, and unlawful delegation of governmental authority to a private entity.

The lawsuit calls for the Development Agreement and Restrictive Covenants to be voided and an order enjoining Disney from enforcing these actions.

The lawsuit comes after Disney filed its own lawsuit against the state, claiming DeSantis has waged a "relentless campaign to weaponize government power" over the company. 


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