Will he be forced out?
Florida - Jesse Hardy's fight to keep his 160 acres in the Southern Golden Gate Estates will return to Tallahassee, Apr. 13, for a final hearing before the Florida Cabinet.
"It's possible the Cabinet could defer it again, but we're confident they will approve eminent domain," says Kathalyn Gaither, land acquisition public information officer for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Located in what is called the "Hole in the Donut," the property is part of the state's 55,000-acre buy-out to restore natural water flows to the Southern Golden Gate Estates (SGGE), once slated for development.
Hardy has owned the property for 28 years. He is the last of thousands of individual property owners whose land was targeted for the Picayune Strand State Forest. What began as a willing seller program turned into condemnation when the project was tied to the $100 million Everglades water restoration project in the late 1990s.
If the state condemns Hardy's land, it will be the first time in Florida history that a homesteaded property has been taken for environmental purposes.
Gaither says if Hardy does not take the $1.5 million offer that's on the table, the selling price will go back to the state's original offer of $909,158 if the Cabinet and Governor approve eminent domain.
The 67-year-old Florida native says he doesn't care - the property is not for sale at any price. A disabled Navy SEAL who has never lived an easy life, he says he's not interested in a condo on the beach or living in an urban setting.
"It's my home and it means more to me than the money. If it (condemnation) was for something useful to the public health and well-being, like a school, a fire station, or a hospital, I would move with no problem," he says.
Although he is skeptical of the success of portions of the rehydration plan, Hardy maintains he supports the project. He says his land is not necessary to the restoration project and he will not be adversely affected by it.
"I'm not against any of the environmentalists' work to rehydrate the Southern Golden Gate Estates," he says. "I'm all for it. I just want to keep my home."
Gaither says Hardy's land is necessary to the project.
"The South Florida Water Management District has conducted modeling that shows that even if there is no flooding on his property, there will be no roads and there will be demolition all around him, posing safety concerns," she says.
Hardy, who once sold real estate for Golden Gate Estates' developer Gulf American Corporation (GAC), homesteaded his rustic property in 1976. With the exception of an excavation pond underway, the property looks very much the same today as it did 28 years ago.
Using propane and a gas-powered generator, he lives in a tiny wood frame home with a friend he took in and her handicapped eight-year-old son.
"Living here is what has kept me going," he says. "It's my home. I'm too old to go anywhere else."
Hardy continues to hold out. One year ago, the governor and Cabinet were asked to initiate condemnation proceedings on his property. Instead, they instructed DEP land acquisition agents to continue to try to negotiate a deal.
Hardy and Gaither both agree that no progress has been made over the past year.
"If I let them get away with it, and they take my home for environmental reasons, then every homeowner in the state of Florida will be in jeopardy," he says. "There's nothing to restore on my land - nothing but pine and Sabal palm. It's my home - it's just that simple - and I won't give it up. I will fight to the very end. I will spend every nickel I've got and can get to fight this."
Hardy will not be attending the hearing in Tallahassee, but will be represented by his attorney. He says it is too emotional of an issue for him. He is also undergoing cancer treatment after having been diagnosed with the disease in November.
He is hopeful area residents will show their support by writing letters asking the governor not to grant the DEP eminent domain and allow him to keep his land.
Estates resident Cindy Kemp, founding member of the Property Rights Action Committee (PRAC), says the group fully backs Hardy. The group created and is distributing brochures on his plight and is promoting his cause through a song, "The Ballad of Jesse Hardy," written by a friend of Hardy and sung by Estates resident Bill Lhota.
"It's not right what they're doing to Jesse," she says. "We're hoping residents will understand how this ultimately affects them and their Constitutional rights."
Hardy hired an engineer to complete a study that shows the elevation of his property at 12 feet. At that height, he says his property will never be affected by the restoration project and he doesn't understand why the state is insisting on buying him out.
Nearly three years ago, Collier County gave Hardy the go-ahead to build the first of four proposed 20-acre ponds to create a fish farm, which he would like to one day open to the public for recreational fishing.
Several environmental groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Collier County Audubon Society opposed the concept, but agreed to support the construction of one 20-acre pond. Any future excavation will have to be re-approved by the county this spring.
In that time, Hardy says he has dug about seven of the 20 acres of the pond. He has also completed and stocked a smaller pond, which he uses to gauge water quality and predator issues. Fill from excavation of the ponds has been purchased by the county for road building.
Hardy says his dream is to one day open his piece of paradise up to the public to fish the ponds and enjoy what he has loved for 27 years.
DEP officials say that dream is unlikely. Gaither says once eminent domain is approved, it will take six months to a year to find Hardy a place to live.
"I've already got a place to live," Hardy says. "They can look all they want - they'll never find another place like this. It's my home and there's no other place like it."
To contact the Governor email email@example.com, call 850-488-4441 or fax 850-487-0801.
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