Following a hearing in Tallahassee yesterday, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and three Cabinet members voted unanimously to turn down a request by the state to begin legal proceedings against Jesse Hardy, 67, and three other property owners whose land government planners say is needed for Everglades restoration.
Instead, the staff of the Department of Environmental Protection was directed to continue talks with the owners on purchasing the 3,982 acres that are in dispute.
The decision came as something of a surprise. Bush has repeatedly complained that the state too often pays inflated prices for environmentally sensitive land, but on Tuesday he did an about-face, saying the state “needs to go the extra mile” before taking a homeowner’s property.
“In the eminent domain world, [forget] everything I’ve said about the state purchasing land,” the governor said. “This is a different animal. We need to bend over backward to find ways to accommodate people who have made life decisions. It’s their property.”
As reported by WorldNetDaily, Hardy’s property – a 160-acre parcel two miles south of Interstate 75 – is within a 55,000-acre government buyout area in southwest Florida’s Collier County called Southern Golden Gate Estates. The area has been targeted for acquisition as part of the Everglades restoration project – a gigantic undertaking that’s intended to restore natural water flows by deconstructing roads and plugging canals built by developers years ago.
By late November, the buyout had cost the state and federal government $89 million, and 3,981 acres are still in private hands. Yesterday’s request, had it been granted, would have given the state the go-ahead to acquire those remaining acres through eminent domain.
The Florida Forever program, which voters approved in 1999, allows the state to use eminent domain if it has made two good-faith offers to buy the property and was turned down. In addition, the land in question must be of such significant environmental importance that failure to buy it would impede the management of other state-owned lands.
State environmental officials insist the properties are critical to the rewilding effort because they will provide a means for directing huge amounts of water to flow south into the Everglades. The parcels are also said to be critical for flood control of the more densely populated Estates area north of Interstate 75.
And that’s where there’s disagreement. Bill Moore, a Sarasota attorney who represents Hardy, says he would like more time to challenge the state’s engineering plans that show his client’s land will be under water as part of the project.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good argument that they don’t need Mr. Hardy’s property for the restoration project,” Moore told the Naples Daily News following the Cabinet meeting. “We’d like to have time to present our reasons.”
If the state’s request for eminent domain is eventually granted, it would be precedent- setting. The Cabinet has never approved its use to acquire homesteaded property, and the program has to date relied upon so-called willing sellers.
Hardy is not the only property owner resisting the land grab.
The Miccosukee Tribe owns 800 acres it bought in 1997 to protect from development. Tribe attorney Dione Carroll said yesterday the region holds cultural and economic importance to the Miccosukees, who have relied on it for decades as a source of herbal medicines and construction materials for traditional housing.
Carroll argues that the land is sovereign tribal land and cannot be purchased without congressional approval. State agencies have challenged that argument on other Miccosukee land purchases.
“The tribe makes it a policy never to sell lands of cultural or historic significance (to the state),” said Carroll. “I’ve heard a lot of talk today about preserving history and culture, and it is critical to the tribe to do that with tribal lands.”