State to decide this week whether to pursue Estates land purchase to dislodge resident

Monday, January 27, 2003

Naple Daily News

Collier County, Florida - Jesse Hardy has lived at the end of a dirt road in Southern Golden Gate Estates, without a telephone and without electricity, for the past 27 years.

Not even Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet could convince him to leave now, he said.

Bush and the Cabinet are set to decide Tuesday in Tallahassee whether to grant state land buyers the authority to pursue eminent domain against Hardy, a 67-year-old disabled veteran who lives on 160 acres with his adopted 7-year-old son, Tommy.

"I plan on fighting this to the very end," Hardy said.

His homestead is part of a 55,000-acre buyout in rural Collier County south of Interstate 75. The land is targeted for an environmental restoration project that would restore natural water flows to the area by tearing out roads and plugging canals that developers built decades ago for a huge subdivision that ended up being more dream than reality.

As of the end of November, the buyout had cost more than $89 million in state and federal dollars and is down to its last 3,981 acres. Tuesday's request would grant eminent domain authority to the last set of landowners to be bought out.

Hardy has other plans. In 2001, he obtained permits from Collier County to begin an earth-mining business. The county is now one of Hardy's customers, buying rock to build new roads. Eventually Hardy wants to turn the mine pits into catfish lakes.

When a federal acquisition agent stood on his front porch last summer and offered him $1.5 million to leave, Hardy told him no.

"I'm not trying to be a hardball or antagonistic or anything, but I'm 67 years old," Hardy said. "I just don't feel like going somewhere else.

"It'd be like going somewhere to die and if I'm going to do that anyway, I'd just as soon do it here."

Hardy's attorney, Bill Moore of Sarasota, said he plans to be in Tallahassee on Tuesday to ask the Cabinet to forego eminent domain against Hardy and to pursue other alternatives.

Moore said state land buyers are refusing to listen to alternatives such as buying an easement across Hardy's land or agreeing to take Hardy's land only after he dies.

"There's really no good reason that they have to seize his land and kick him off other than that they just want to," Moore said.

Supporters of the restoration point out, though, that owners of homesteads in the Estates have not exactly been getting a bum deal.

Because federal money is involved in the buyout, land buyers must follow federal rules to buy homesteaded land such as Hardy's. Those rules, among other things, require that the government pay for moving expenses, for a new similar home and for closing costs.

Rob Lovern, assistant director of the Florida Division of State Lands, said the state is not through talking with Hardy yet.

"We just haven't been able to reach an agreement," Lovern said. "We're willing to talk with him, we'll sit down with him at any time to talk about it."

Hardy is not the only sticky wicket among the landowners on the Cabinet agenda Tuesday.

The state also is asking for authority to pursue eminent domain to get ownership of roads and canals owned by Collier County and 800 acres owned by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Using eminent domain against the Miccosukees could become a legal test of the property rights of an American Indian tribe that the law recognizes as a sovereign nation.

The Miccosukees and the South Florida Water Management District already are in a standoff over the District's decision to use eminent domain to get ownership to 375 acres the tribe owns in Miami-Dade County. Plans for Everglades restoration call for using the land as a huge reservoir.

The tribe has refused to sell that land and is apparently taking the same hard line when it comes to land in Southern Golden Gate Estates.

"We do respect their sovereignty and the heritage they're trying to protect," Lovern said. "We have our hand out to them to see if we can all reach our objective."

Representatives of the tribe could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.

The state's eminent domain overtures might get a more welcome response from Collier County.

The county has about 200 miles of roads and 25 to 30 bridges in Southern Golden Gate Estates, according to County Manager Jim Mudd.

Mudd said last week that he doesn't expect that the county will resist selling the roads and bridges because commissioners have passed a resolution supporting the restoration project. The only question is how much money the state is willing to pay, Mudd said.

He said proceeds from the sale of the county's roads and bridges would go toward closing the shortfall in the county's road-building budget.

"We haven't even started negotiations for those roads yet," he said.

The issue came up at a meeting last week with the South Florida Water Management District, Mudd said.

"I let them know it wasn't going to be given to them," Mudd said, referring to the roads and bridges.

In the past, the status of county roads in Southern Golden Gate Estates has been tied up in concerns about retaining public access to that part of the county.

Once the roads are in public ownership, a management plan written by the Florida Division of Forestry would spell out which roads would remain open to the public and which would have to be torn out for the restoration.

Access issues came to a head last year in a deal to settle the county's 1999 lawsuit asking a judge to declare the public's right to use Miller Boulevard extension, a dirt road that connects the southern end of the Estates with U.S. 41 East.

The state owns all of the road except one parcel, owned by the Miccosukee Tribe, where the extension intersects with U.S. 41.

The deal would have allowed the public to use the extension until it had to be torn out for the restoration. In exchange, the county would have been required to turn over other parts of Miller and Lynch boulevards when the state acquired the land along the roads.

The deal fell apart over the county's attempt to get more access rights written into the agreement.

Commissioner Jim Coletta, who represented the county in the talks, said at the time that the county would get a better deal on access by going ahead with the lawsuit. The lawsuit is pending.

Mudd said he will bring up the roads issue to county commissioners at a workshop meeting set for Wednesday.


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