Disabled veteran Jesse Hardy and his neighbor George Miller won a second reprieve last week in their ongoing battle to save their homes and land when Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet again voted unanimously not to approve the use of eminent domain to acquire the properties.

Cabinet members on Thursday told Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs to return to the negotiation table with better offers. According to the Naples Daily News, these might include buying the properties outright, paying all moving and legal fees, or allowing the two to remain until the area is actually flooded, which wouldn’t take place until 2006, if then.

No deadline was set for coming to an agreement.

Jesse Hardy and son Tommy (Photo: Tony Wojciechowski).

A letter-writing campaign launched by the grass-roots Property Rights Action Committee apparently played a role in persuading the Cabinet and the governor to press for other approaches.

“I had a lot of people helping me, and they flooded the place (the governor’s office) with e-mails and letters,” Hardy told WorldNetDaily. “The governor’s garbage pail was overflowing with letters.”

As reported by WorldNetDaily, Hardy, 67, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, lives with his adopted 7-year-old son, Tommy, in a modest wood-framed house at the end of a dirt road, on a 160-acre parcel he bought in 1976. Collier County, where the property is located, has refused to allow electricity to be provided to the area, and like other area residents he has relied on propane and a gas-powered generator.

There are very few residents left, most having been bought out or pressured into moving. Hardy and his neighbor George Miller are the only homeowners left, and they do not want to move nor do they feel it is necessary. Hardy has rejected various money offers from the government, some reportedly topping $1.7 million.

This has been my home since 1977,” he says. “I’ve always liked to stay in one place; I’m not one to go rambling.”

Hardy’s property lies less than two miles south of Interstate 75, within a 55,000-acre government buyout area called Southern Golden Gate Estates that the state of Florida has targeted for acquisition as part of the gigantic Everglades restoration project. The project is intended to restore natural water flows and involves deconstructing roads and plugging canals built years ago when development of the area was regarded as the appropriate thing to do. Reversing that policy requires the relocation of thousands of people throughout southern Florida.

The buyout has so far cost the state and federal governments $92 million, and 3,982 acres are still in private hands.

The Florida Forever program, approved by the voters in 1999, allows the state to use eminent domain if it has made two good-faith offers to buy a piece of property and has been turned down. In addition, the land must be of such significant environmental importance that failure to buy it would hamper the management of other state-owned lands.

Hardy is not opposed to the project.

“If they think they can increase the water table out in this area it will be OK,” he says. “If they want to rehydrate the Southern Golden Gates Estates, that would be fine.”

But Hardy and his attorney, Bill Moore of Sarasota, Fla., maintain the property is not really needed for the restoration project. The project would not be hampered or in any way affected if his 160 acres is not in government hands since the property will not be flooded.

“My property is too high to be flooded,” Hardy explains. “It’s recorded as being at least 13 to 14 feet above sea level, and if you go out in the yard and put a GPS [global positioning system] reading on it, I’m 64 feet above actual sea level.”

Not only that, the northern edge of the planned flood zone will be some eight miles south of his property. Hardy’s land is not only too elevated to be affected by any flooding, but too far away from the restoration project. In his view, the push to take his property is simply land acquisition for the sake of land acquisition.

“[Environmentalists] were always trying to get [my land],” Hardy recalls. “If there’s a vacant piece of property around, they try to get the government to buy it. That’s what it boils down to. They cannot seem to let a piece of vacant property lay around. If somebody’s got it and they ain’t building on it or they ain’t farming on it and they just own it – then [environmentalists] want the government to have it.”

As WorldNetDaily reported, in late January Bush and the three-member Cabinet (recently reduced in size from six members) rejected a request by the state Department of Environmental Protection to allow it to use its powers of condemnation and directed it to continue talks with the owners on purchasing the nearly 4,000 acres still in dispute.

If granted, it would be the first time the state of Florida has used eminent domain to take homesteaded land – land that is a person’s primary residence – as part of its environmental land-buying program, and the governor and Cabinet are reluctant to begin.

Bush said the state “needs to go the extra mile” before taking a homeowner’s property.

Although they deferred action on Hardy and Miller’s property (as well as property owned by the Miccosukee Indian tribe), the governor and Cabinet approved the condemnation of eight uninhabited parcels, about 200 miles of roads and 25 to 30 bridges owned by Collier County government.

It was only a one-month reprieve for the homeowners. On March 13, the department again pressed its case for condemnation.

“What we now face are two homesteaded parcels remaining,” said Struhs, the Naples Daily News reported. “It’s not like Department of Transportation where we do two [condemnations] a day. We’re doing two in four years.”

But Bush and his fellow Cabinet members remained unconvinced and reluctant to set the wheels of condemnation in motion. Since the actual construction is not slated to start until 2006, it should be possible to work out an arrangement, they said.

“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,” said state Agriculture Secretary Charlie Bronson, a member of the Cabinet. “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.”

For Hardy the money is not the issue. For him the “extra mile” would be to sell “flood rights” – or “flowage easement” – where the government buys an easement over a property and acquires the right to flood it at some point.

“I’d be willing to do that,” he said. “They just don’t need to take this land.”

Previous stories:

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Disabled vet’s home safe for now

Disabled vet fights for home

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Get rid of the people!

Senators steal Florida land

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