Tallahassee, Florida - For now, Jesse Hardy can keep his land.

Naples News

Tallahassee, FLA - 3/13/03 - Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet on Thursday gave Hardy and fellow
Southern Golden Gate Estates resident George Miller more time to negotiate
with state officials, who want to acquire their lands. Hardy and Miller have
refused to give up their homes to make way for an environmental restoration
project that has both state and federal blessing.

Instead of forcing the pair off their land through legal action, Cabinet
members told Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs to
go back to the homeowners with a better offer.

Such a deal could include buying the property, paying all moving and legal
fees and allowing them to stay until it's time to flood the region, which
wouldn't take place until at least 2006 but may likely be later.

"When it's somebody's property sitting out there and we need to put a road
through it, I have no problem with that," state financial officer Tom
Gallagher said. "Somebody's homestead is a different deal."

The Cabinet made the decision after Bush blasted Collier County officials for
driving up the cost of state land-buying because of local zoning rules that
appear to fly in the face of long-standing state and federal efforts to
purchase land for Everglades restoration.

"We need to start second-guessing Collier County," Bush said.

Hardy, a 67-year-old disabled veteran, lives on 160 acres with his adopted
7-year-old son, Tommy. His parcel is part of the less than 4,000 acres yet to
be purchased within the 55,000-acre buyout in rural Collier County, south of
Interstate 75. State and federal officials have already spent $92 million on
property in the region.

Despite being under target for purchases for a year, Hardy in 2001 obtained
permits from Collier County to begin an earth-mining business. He also wants
to start a catfish farming operation.

The Cabinet has long said it wouldn't force landowners to sell their
property. Most property owners have agreed to sell. Of the 19,000 parcels
originally under private ownership, fewer than 350 parcels remain at issue.

Thursday, Struhs said the two purchases would mark the first time state
environmental officials have used eminent domain on homesteaded property in
Florida's environmental land-buying efforts, though some property owners beg
to differ.

"What we now face are two homesteaded parcels remaining," Struhs said. "It's
not like the Department of Transportation where we do two (condemnations) a
day. We're doing two in four years."

Bush and fellow Cabinet members weren't swayed. Given the fact that more than
90 percent of the targeted land has been purchased and actual construction is
years away, Cabinet members said they would be willing to work with Hardy and
Miller to sweeten the deals.

"These people moved there for a reason to start with and that was to get out
of town, out in the woods and it's a little tough on them," state Agriculture
Secretary Charlie Bronson said. "I know we're going to have to do this to
move this project, and I believe that can be accomplished. It may cost us a
little more."

While taking pity on Hardy and Miller, Cabinet members had less sympathy for
county officials, who they say are contributing to higher land costs in the

Florida environmental officials are trying to wrap up the last purchases in
Southern Golden Gate Estates. Thursday, DEP officials requested the authority
to make offers on some of the remaining parcels.

Bush and other members chose not to adopt the proposal after learning state
officials are facing increasing competition from private bidders in Collier

Under the program, state land buyers are restricted in how much they can pay.
On smaller purchases, for example, they can only pay $5,000 or up to 125
percent of the appraised value.

On at least one recent purchase attempt, private buyers outbid state
officials, scooped up the property and immediately subdivided it with Collier
County government's blessing -- meaning the property then was worth more and
it would cost the state more to buy it.

Now, what once was a single 5-acre parcel contains four parcels, the value of
which has risen. Instead of paying the property owner for the loss of one
house, state officials must pay for four such losses, even though the entire
region has been slated to be flooded for at least the past two years.

"This is incredible," Bush said. "We're taking action to purchase land under
a power that makes me queasy -- when the local government wants people to
build homes."


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