Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District and the Seminole Tribe of Florida: A Glimpse at Major Laws That Went Into the Creation, Maintenance, and Prosperity of an Autonomous Corporate Oasis and a Native American Self-Governing People

Adam R. Wagner
I.          Introduction

The State of Florida is ranked as the top travel destination in the world.[1]  As a result, tourism leads the economy[2] with an economic impact of $67 billion in 2011.[3]  In 2014, 97,000,000 people visited the Sunshine State, and the Department of Economic Opportunity estimated that 1.1 million people can thank the tourism industry for their employment.[4]  Walt Disney World alone employs over 66,000 people,[5] and the Seminole Tribe of Florida employs over 10,000 people just at its seven gaming establishments.[6]

Both organizations are major contributors to Florida’s economy.[7]  The question is how each organization attained the legal status that was required for them to become the economic powerhouses that they are today.[8]  Part II of this article briefly touches on which entities are typically granted zoning powers.[9]  Part III of this article addresses the law that went into the formation and continued operation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which houses the Walt Disney World Resort.[10]  Part IV addresses the Seminole Tribe of Florida and one of the laws that made its creation and sovereignty possible.[11]

II.        Brief Overview of Zoning

Zoning comes in all shapes and sizes.[12]  Typical classifications are commercial, industrial, residential, and agricultural.[13]  The government uses zoning to control the physical development of land and how the land may be used.[14]  Zoning rights are limited by statute and are a function of the legislature that is delegated to local authorities such as counties, cities or municipalities.[15]  The power to zone may be provided by legislative act.[16]  However, “authority to enact zoning cannot be delegated to a governmental body that is not elected by the people.”[17]

In 1926, the Supreme Court addressed the validity of zoning in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.[18]  The Court “approved zoning as a device to regulate the orderly growth of cities.”[19]  Further, zoning ordinances must “bear a rational relation to the health, morals, safety and general welfare.”[20]

III.       Reedy Creek Improvement District

The Reedy Creek Improvement District (“RCID”) is an area of land in central Florida that is roughly twice the size of the borough of Manhattan.[21]  It is comprised of about 25,000 acres and is home to the Walt Disney World Resort.[22] The land is owned almost exclusively by the Walt Disney Company, which maintains a local government that—although hardly democratic in nature—is considered to be more efficient than most local bureaucracies.[23]

The RCID is considered a special-purpose district.[24]  When the Florida Legislature created RCID through Ch. 67-764 of the Laws of Florida in 1967, it granted the district powers[25] usually reserved for local or county governments.[26]  According to the United States Census Bureau[27], the objective behind special-purpose districts is to “exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general-purpose local governments.”[28] RCID—like the majority of special-purpose districts—is independent from other forms of government, and the district’s plans and budgets are not subject to the approval of other governments.[29]  “This autonomy and actual legislative capacity elevates [RCID] from merely an advisory board (such as a Board of Zoning Adjustment) to . . . [that of a] . . . City Council serving in an actual legislative capacity.”[30]  This permitted RCID to do nearly anything with the land with little or no government oversight.[31]

IV.       Seminole Tribe of Florida

The Seminole Tribe of Florida of today comprises the descendants of 300 Native Americans.[32]  At the current time, Florida has six Seminole reservations located in Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Ft. Pierce, and Tampa.[33]  These reservations are home to Florida’s Seminole tribesmen.[34]  To maintain their economy, the Seminole people are heavily involved with tourism, gambling, citrus groves, and cattle.[35] 

The Seminole Tribe—and all Native American Tribes for that matter—is not subject to civil jurisdiction in state courts.[36]  This is because Native American Tribes are protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.[37]  The exceptions to this rule are when either the Tribe expressly consents to be sued, or Congress expressly waives the Tribes’ sovereign immunity for civil actions.[38]  Similar to special purpose districts, the Tribes were granted authority reserved for governments.[39] 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted the Native American people to form their own governments that would function within the big picture that is the United States of America.[40]  This was accomplished through section sixteen of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which states, “[a]ny Indian tribe, or tribes, residing on the same reservation, shall have the right to organize for its common welfare, and may adopt an appropriate constitution and bylaws.”[41] 

Most tribal lands are held in trust by the government.[42]  Because of the trusts, the lands are subject to tribal—and not state—jurisdiction.[43]  The result being that state laws are not applicable to the land in the trust.[44]  The hope is to foster economic growth in addition to putting control back into the hands of the tribes.[45]

V.        Conclusion

Although not the typical entities thought of in terms of zoning, both the Reedy Creek Improvement District and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have, through various pieces of legislation, established their own governments that permit both organizations to lead kingdoms of their own—whether they be magical or financial—within the borders of the United States.[46]  Each organization has its own relative autonomy from the parent government, and, through this autonomy, they have grown to become leaders in the State of Florida both economically and spiritually.[47]

[1].              Justin Walton, Florida’s Economy: The 6 Industries Driving GDP Growth, Investopedia (Jan. 13, 2016, 3:52 PM), http://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/011316/floridas-economy-6-industries-driving-gdp-growth.asp.
[2].              Id.
[3].              Florida Quick Facts, StateofFlorida.com, http://www.stateofflorida.com/facts.aspx (last visited Mar. 20, 2016).
[4].              Walton, supra note 1.
[5].              Id.
[6].              See infra note 314.
[7].              See infra Part III and Part IV.
[8].              See infra Part III and Part IV.
[9].              See infra Part II.
[10].            See infra Part III and Part IV.
[11].            See infra Part III and Part IV.
[12].            See What is Zoning, http://people.uwec.edu/ivogeler/w270/what_if_zoning.htm (last visited Mar. 19, 2017).
[13].            Id.
[14].            Id.
[15].            Id.; 24 Fla. Prac. Florida Municipal Law and Practice § 12:3, Westlaw (database updated Oct. 2016).
[16].            Id.
[17].            Id.
[18].            272 U.S. 365 (1926).
[19].            Id.see also Roy P. Cookson & Burt Bruton, Zoning Law, 35 U. Miami L. Rev. 581, 581 (1980).
[20].            Village of Euclid, 272 U.S. at 392; see also Nectow v. Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183, 188 (1927); City of Miami Beach v. 8701 Collins Ave, Inc., 77 So. 2d 428, 430 (Fla. 1955).
[21].            Todd William Gretton, Responsible Corporate Environmental Policy:  Available in Fantasyland; Coming Soon to Main Street U.S.A. A Glimpse at a Corporate Owned and Operated Special Purpose District and Its Impact on the Environment in Central Florida, 15 Pa. St. Envtl. L. Rev. 151, 151 (2006).
[22].            Id.
[23].            Id. at 153.
[24].            Id. “A special [purpose] district is a government subdivision that addresses a special need for a particular geographic area.” See Gretton, supra note 21.
[25].            See infra Part III.  
[26].            Chad D. Emerson, Merging Public and Private Governance:  How Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District “Re-Imagined” the Traditional Division of Local Regulatory Powers, 36 Fla. St. L. Rev. 177, 178 (2009).
[27].            U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1992 Census of Governments (1997).
[28].            Emerson, supra note 26, at 179.
[29].            Id. at 181.
[30].            Id.
[31].            See id.
[32].            Seminole History, http://dos.myflorida.com/florida-facts/florida-history/seminole-history/ (last visited July 24, 2016).
[33].            Id.
[34].            Id.
[35].            Id.
[36].            29 Fla. Jur. 2d Indians § 11 (2016).
[37].            Id.
[38].            Id.
[39].            See id.
[40].            G. William Rice, The Indian Reorganization Act, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and a Proposed Carcieri “Fix”:  Updating the Trust Land Acquisition Process, 45 Idaho L. Rev. 575, 578 (2008).
[41].            25 U.S.C. §§ 461–63, 467, 470–71, 476–77, 476 (2014).
[42].            Ezekiel J. N. Fletcher, Negotiating Meaningful Concessions from States in Gaming Compacts to Further Tribal Economic Development: Satisfying the “Economic Benefit” Test, 54 S.D. L. Rev. 419, 440 (2009).
[43].            Id. at 441.
[44].            Id.
[45].            See id.
[46].            See supra Part II–IV.
[47].            See supra Part III and Part IV.

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