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The Rich History of the Town of Orchid
Early Settlers and Agriculture
It was in the late 1800s that the first settlers arrived in the area we know now as the Town of Orchid. Captain Frank Forster at 29 years of age was the first with a desire to make a home here. He had a vision for the area and acquired land with the intent of selling it to other settlers with whom he could start a community. It was Captain Forster who first dubbed the area “Orchid” for the indigenous Epidendrum Tampanese orchid variety which grew here in profusion.
West Virginia’s Stephen Kelita Michael and W. H. Wigfield bought five acres of land from Captain Forster and were among the first to construct their family homes in Orchid. In those early days there was no connection between the barrier island on which Orchid is located with the mainland of Florida. This meant that the building materials for those first homes had to be floated down the river from Titusville.
Although the first bridge, made of wood at the time, wasn’t constructed until 1926, the community enjoyed postal service as early as 1887. President Grover Cleveland appointed Susan Morth to be the first Postmistress in the area.
By that time Stephen Michael had begun a small citrus grove, but it was devastated
by severe frost in the 1890s. Undeterred, his son, a businessman, A. B. Michael, took
over and reestablished the grove across 10 acres of land. Grapefruit produced from
this thriving grove would become world famous for its fine quality and juicy sweet-
ness. Orchid would remain an agricultural community for a century; even in the late
1990s citrus trees still grew here.
Incorporation of the Town of Orchid
Meanwhile, the town had become incorporated on May 12th 1965. The main reason was to preserve the natural beauty of the area for future generations. At that time only 7 registered voters resided in the new Town, which stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Intracoastal Waterway on the West. In all, the area comprised 1,104.4 acres.
On March 7th in 1966, the first Town councilmembers were elected. George Lier was chosen as the first Mayor. In a statement to the Indian River News, he said; "The whole idea of the unhurried atmosphere of the ol' South being continued by the incorporation of the ‘Town of Orchid’ deeply appeals to me. I appreciate the efforts of my constituents in making it possible for me to be Mayor of a Town, that will continue to be as naturally beautiful as it was when the pioneers first came here--a lovely area with Florida Sunshine and the resultant healthy atmosphere for work, play and rearing children--where the blue herons walk in the front yard and the big white cranes stand silently in the waters of the River.”
Ann Denby Michael served as the first Vice-Mayor and she said of Orchid; “It is my prayer that, in reactivating the ‘Community of Orchid’ as the ‘Town of Orchid’, we may remember to preserve its natural beauty for our children, their children and for the State of Florida.”
Jeannette Lier, Joe Michael and Helen Ryall, Sr. completed the first council. The Town also had a Town Clerk, Louise Johnston, who was the daughter of Joe and Ann Michael. A local law firm provided the Town with legal counsel. Any of the councilmembers could call a meeting with just two hours’ notice. For twenty years, a simple white river-cottage would serve as the Town Hall.
As a municipality of the State of Florida, Town of Orchid had power over its zoning and taxation. In 1967, the Town budgeted for expenses of $2000 and collected $1914.24 in taxes. Below is the official budget adopted in 1972 for the year ending in September 1973:
Development of the Town of Orchid
In 1986, the Town was purchased by Deerfield Groves. Orchid was still a community of few households. One resident, Joe Michael, decided to separate his personal property from the Town. He wanted the land to go to the Fish and Wildlife Service for preservation, fearing it might otherwise be used for development.
Just two years after the Deerfield Groves purchase of the Town, it would be sold to Orchid Island Association Ltd. Part of the deal was to dis-incorporate a tract of land on Earring Point to allow grove owners in that area to live outside of Town of Orchid. Some of these were descendants of the original settlers.
Robert Haines III of Avon in Connecticut was a general partner and President of the group. It was his intent to establish a luxury, gated community of a few hundred homes in the Town. Generously sized lots were marked out around an 18-hole golf course. Homes were constructed and priced at the $3 million mark.
A Home Rule Charter of Orchid, FL was adopted on September 20, 1988, which stated; “The Town of Orchid in Indian River County, Florida, which was created by the Florida Legislature, shall continue as a municipal corporation with a Council-Manager form of government.” Nevertheless, the first Town Manager wouldn’t be hired until over two years later in October 1990.
Meanwhile, councilmembers were appointed rather than elected and it was Robert “Hutch” Haines IV (son of the developer) who served as the Mayor of the Town. Together with councilmember Robert Bradshaw, he also filled the function of a planning and zoning commission. The development plan for the Town included 1,343 housing units on 480 acres of developable land for a gross density of 2.79 units per acre.”
The projection for the Town’s 2010 population was a total of 2,801 residents of which 700 would be year-round. At that time, there were only “four homes in Orchid. Two [were] mobile homes placed there [by the developer in 1989 and occupied by council members so that they could be legal residents of the town], while the others [were] a $40,000 home built in 1939 and a vacant $40,000 home built in 1980. … According to the plan, the only public facility the town [expected] to build over the 20-year planning period [was] a Town Hall, which would be built with property taxes.”
A major component in the vision that Robert Haines III had for the Town was the creation of the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club. He would break ground on its construction in 1988. Arnold Palmer designed the Club’s world-famous golf course; an emerald jewel between the beautiful blues of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. He said of the area that it was “an ideal location. It’s one of the nicest spots along the Treasure Coast of Florida.”
“It was a time of great anticipation and excitement; more than one hundred workmen were on the property each day, creating what would become the magnificent 22.000 square foot Beach Club” described Ann Zugelter of the period.
Ernie Polverari, the first Town Manager for Orchid, was said by the Town’s long-time attorney, Bruce Brakett, to have been “instrumental in transforming a tiny community that just happened to be incorporated into a real town with a budget and other structures of government.” Indeed, Ernie served the town in many ways including in functions as Police Chief and Building Inspector.
Saving the Town of Orchid
On August 15th in 1991, residents in Orchid received a letter informing them a foreclosure suit was filed, because Robert Haines III faced financial hardship. Development in Orchid came to a halt and its future was momentarily uncertain. The facilities of the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club were closed and security services at the gated community became minimal.
The Town Council continued to meet on a regular basis, nonetheless. The Mayor Robert Haines IV reassured residents with the words “We are here as a town, regardless of (what happens with) the developers.” However, he did add that “The Town’s property owners would be well advised to keep someone looking out for their holdings.”
At the final budget hearing that year, the Town’s incorporation came under threat. Representative Charles Sembler was considering introducing a bill to abolish Orchid as a Town. His reasoning regarded what he saw as a developer controlled Town Council, which he spoke of at the County Commission meeting a week prior to Orchid’s final budget hearing. He was particularly concerned about the Councilmembers who lived in trailers provided by the developer in Orchid.
Bob and Sally Sibson, who were early property owners in the Town, along with property owners Dan and Ann Zugelter, started a “Save the Town” initiative. This mail and telephone campaign encouraged Orchid’s property owners to contact Representative Sembler. The Town’s residents expressed their negative reactions to the proposed bill that would abolish the Town of Orchid. They had an ally in County Commissioner Dick Bird, who favored keeping Orchid as a municipality, because the “development can market itself better and the residents can control their own destiny.”
Orchid resident Ted Leonsis pointed out that the Town’s Council had never had a true property owner on the council, since the developers had bought the Town years before. He suggested that this was probably another reason Sembler was considering abolishing Orchid. By the end of September, on the 29th, Ted Leonsis and Lynn Velde were the first property owners appointed to the Council in years. It wasn’t long until the former was selected as Mayor and the latter as Vice-Mayor. Lynn explained that he wanted the “Town Council (to be) responsive to the residents rather than acting as an arm of the developer.”
The addition of these two new Councilmembers brought the number of Councilmembers to five for the first time since the developers had bought the Town. Despite the Town’s Charter calling for a five-strong Council, it had been operating with just three Councilmembers until this time.
Bob Sibson made Representative Sembler aware of this shift from developer to citizen control in the Town. Ultimately, Representative Sembler’s proposal to the County Commission failed and Town of Orchid remained a municipality.
Overcoming Financial Trouble
By November 1991, the court appointed Vista Properties Management as the receiver of the Town’s land. Its president, John Kurtz, closed the sales office and began a comprehensive inventory of everything on the property. Meanwhile, the previous developer’s son, Robert Haines IV, who was no longer serving as Mayor, but still as a councilmember, failed to attend several Council meetings, favoring instead spending time in Connecticut with his father’s business. In December 1991, Emily Appleton was appointed to fill his seat on the Council.
Eventually Robert Haines III defaulted on more than $50 million in loans and twelve lawsuits were filed. “The doors to the elegant, $8 million, West Indies style Orchid Island Beach Club were locked; the cabanas, dining room and airy terraces visited only by the wind and a security guard. Across State Road A1A, the Arnold Palmer-designed, 18-hole championship golf course sits unused, closed to play with only a skeleton crew to maintain it. A telephone answering machine answered calls to the Orchid Island Golf and Beach administration and sales office with a message saying the office is closed until further notice.”
In March 1992 the Town held its first real election since 1966. The post-election Council was made up of Ted Leonsis, Lynn Velde, Emily Appleton and Ann Zugelter. Later Barbara Greenbaum would join this Council, after moving into Orchid in July of 1992.
Town Manager Ernie Polverari worked together with Town Planner Mary Jane Vreeland to draw up a Master Plan for the Town. It was adopted by the Town Council, as was a Code of Ordinances. These documents included many planning and zoning restrictions relating to the Town’s future development. They served to “preserve the character of the community” and would shield the Town from being purchased and developed by, among others, a California hotel chain and by Mobil Oil.
The work on the Master Plan and the Code of Ordinances by the Town Manager, Town Planner and Town Council are to be credited with the Orchid that exists today. Ann Zugelter said that Ernie Polverari, as the first Town Manager, particularly deserves credit for his vision for Orchid.
In May 1993, Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club was purchased by First Union for Resolution Trust Company for $19 million and its development was restarted. By March 1994, the golf course was restored to playing condition once more. During this time, Town of Orchid’s community slowly began to grow and a deep pride in the small municipality grew with it.
In October 1994, the property was purchased by TorWest for $20 million. Around this time, in November, the Town Council also saw some changes. Lynn Velde was (unanimously) selected as Mayor, while Ted Leonsis became Vice-Mayor. Following her resignation, Barbara Greenbaum was replaced with Dr. Jim Zickler. By 1998, Barbara would make a return to Council as Vice-Mayor.
By 1996, the Town had 34 residents, but soon room would be made available for more, as the Town approved the development of ocean-front condominiums. In 2000, the Town took under consideration several applications for use of the 510 parcel of land zoned for commercial use. In the fall of 2001, Torwest purchased the 510 property. In 2002, the Town made overtures to Galen Weston to see if he would sell the 510 property to the Town, but he declined the offer.
On March 31, 2000, the Town of Orchid received official recognition from the US Postal Service and Orchid, FL 32963-9504 became an official mailing address. In March 2001, the Press Journal reported that the Town had grown by 1,300% in the last decade.
In 2001, the first Town Manager, Ernie Polverari, passed away. Between then and now, four more Town Managers serve(d) Orchid, namely; David Jakubiak (hired February 2003), Maria Aguilar (hired April 2005) and Deb Branwell (hired March 2008, after serving as Town Clerk). Presently, Noah Powers works in the Town Manager position. The office of the Town Clerk was the Town's first official position and it remains an important one today, currently held by Cherry Stowe.
The Town of Orchid is almost entirely "built out" at this time. Few remaining residential buildable lots remain. The A1A commercial property has an approved site plan and construction is underway. Meanwhile, the 510 commercial property as of this writing remains undeveloped.
The Town never reached the proportions originally predicted by Robert Haines IV. There are around 330 single-family residences and 10 condominium buildings. The Town boasts around 680 residents presently; far fewer than once forecast, but certainly, vastly more than the population of 7 of its very early days. The Town remains one of Florida’s most scenic and desirable places to live.
For a Town Council timeline, click HERE.
Sources – Club Website, personal interviews, Ann Zugelter, Emily McDonough, Barbara Greenbaum’s files, the Town Archives (including newspaper articles).
Click HERE to read a wonderful article by Vero Newsweekly of March 18, 2015 on Mrs. Anne Denby Michael and her "love of place and history" in Orchid.