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Disabled vet fights for home

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Cabinet are meeting today in Tallahassee to decide whether or not to give the green light to the state of Florida to use its power of eminent domain to oust a disabled veteran and other property owners from their homes and land, reports the Naples Daily News.

For over a quarter of a century, Jesse Hardy, 67, has lived at the end of a dirt road in rural Collier County, on a 160-acre parcel, not far from the site of last year’s Sawgrass Rebellion rally for property rights. Today he shares his home and life with his 7-year-old adopted son, Tommy.

Hardy does not wish to move, and last summer even said no to a federal agent who offered him $1.7 million for his land.

“I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve done everyone by the book,” he told the press two years ago. “They use my taxes in one way or another, and I’ve never asked for a thing. … I just want to be left alone.”

But Hardy’s small homestead two miles south of Interstate 75 is within a 55,000-acre government buyout area called Southern Golden Gate Estates that has been targeted for acquisition as part of the gigantic Everglades restoration project. The completed project is intended to restore natural water flows by deconstructing roads and plugging canals built by developers years ago. It will require the relocation of thousands of people throughout southern Florida.

The buyout has already cost the state and federal government $89 million, and 3,981 acres are still in private hands. Today’s request, if granted, would give the state the go-ahead to acquire those remaining acres through eminent domain.

“I plan on fighting this to the very end,” Hardy told the Naples Daily News. “I’m not trying to be a hardball or antagonistic or anything, but I am 67 years old. 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.”

And Hardy shouldn’t have to leave, says his attorney Bill Moore of Sarasota, Fla.

According to Moore, state land buyers are refusing to consider other options such as buying an easement across the property or agreeing to wait until Hardy’s death before taking the land.

Moore said he’ll be in Tallahassee today to ask the Cabinet to shelve the eminent domain plans against Hardy and seek alternatives.

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

Hardy has plans of his own for the property. In 2001, he began an earth-mining business, having obtained the necessary permits from Collier County. Today, the county is one of his customers, buying rock to build new roads. He would like to turn the mining pits into lakes for a catfish farm – that is, if he can hang onto his homestead.

Promoters of the restoration project say the other owners of property in the target area have done very well through the buyout and that Hardy would also. Because federal money is involved, the land buyers must follow federal rules requiring the government to pay for moving expenses, a similar home and closing costs.

Robert Lovern, assistant director of the Florida Division of State Lands, told the Daily News the state wants to continue talking with Hardy, but hasn’t been able to come to an agreement.

“We’re willing to talk with him. We’ll sit down with him anytime to talk about it,” said Lovern.

Hardy’s is not the only eminent domain case on today’s Cabinet agenda. The state wants to use eminent domain to acquire some roads and canals owned by Collier County and to seize 800 acres owned by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Since the tribe has adamantly refused to sell, this could become a test case for the property rights of an American Indian tribe that is recognized under the law as a sovereign nation.

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

The Miccosukee and the South Florida Water Management District also are locked in a legal battle over the district’s decision to use eminent domain to seize ownership of 375 acres the tribe owns in Miami-Dade, the county adjacent to Collier. The restoration plan calls for using that area as a giant reservoir.

The tribe refuses to sell either that land or its land in Southern Golden Gate Estates.

County Manager Jim Mudd says that Collier County owns about 200 miles of roads and 30 bridges in Southern Golden Gate Estates and has told the Daily News that since the county commissioners passed a resolution supporting the restoration project, he does not think the county will resist selling the roads and bridges – as long as the price is right.

Mudd said that moneys derived from the road and bridge sales would help close a shortfall in the county’s road-building budget, but added that negotiations had not started.

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

“I let them know it [the roads and bridges] wasn’t going to be given to them,” he recalled.

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