The Why of the Sawgrass Rebellion

August 11, 2002

By The Sierra Times Staff

It's on the eastern border of the Everglades, down on the southern tip of Florida, Miami-Dade County. For decades bungling and sometimes viciously renegade officialdom has called it "The 8.5 Square Mile Area."

Resident Madeleine Fortin calls it "Pariah."

On October 19, Real Americans are going there to do something about it. It's called The Sawgrass Rebellion.

In the delivered-under-oath words of another "Pariah" resident, Ibel Aguilera, this is why:

TESTIMONY OF MRS. IBEL AGUILERA RESIDENT OF THE 8.5 SQUARE MILE AREA AND DIRECTOR UNITED PROPERTY OWNERS AND FRIENDS OF THE 8.5 SMA, INC. BEFORE THE WATER RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Washington, D.C. March 1, 2000

THE 8.5 SQUARE MILE AREA

A Case Study of Agency Defiance of Congress And Abuse of Private Property Rights Under the Guise of Restoration

Mr. Chairman, my name is Ibel Aguilera. I am a property owner and resident of a small rural community in Miami-Dade County, Florida, known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area. I am also a Director of the United Property Owners and Friends of the 8.5 Square Mile Area, an organization made of unwilling sellers that is fighting government efforts to take our land and our homes under the guise of Everglades restoration. I am pleased to be here today on behalf of the property owners and residents of my community. We have about 350 homes, 1,500 residents, and more than 1,000 property owners on approximately 5,500 acres of land in the 8.5 SMA. We want to thank you for the opportunity to address your Committee that is so important to Everglades Restoration.

On April 27, 1999, I also had the opportunity to address the Committee on Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, when Chairman Hanson held hearings on the failure to implement the Modified Water Deliveries Project and the impact that it is having on the Everglades in general, and our community in particular.

I want this Committee to know that the people of the 8.5 SMA are in favor of the restoration of the wonderful Everglades and our beautiful South Florida ecosystem. I am here today, however, to testify about a very ugly, unfortunate, and unnecessary chapter in the Everglades restoration process that should be viewed as a case study while your Committee considers funding this multi-billion dollar project in the Water Resources Development Act.

PUBLIC LAW 101-229: AND THE MWD PROJECT: A PROMISE NOT KEPT This case study involves a restoration project that was authorized in the Everglades National Park Expansion Act of 1989, Public Law 101-229. Under this Act, championed by the late Congressman Dante B. Fascell, the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) was directed to build and implement the Modified Water Deliveries Project to restore natural flows to Shark River Slough "to the extent practicable." The Act clearly directed that adjacent residential and agricultural areas be protected, without qualification, as part of the Modified Water Deliveries Project. Public Law 101-229, Section 104 (c), clearly guarantees the 8.5 SMA flood protection.

It states: "FLOOD PROTECTION; EIGHT AND ONE-HALF SQUARE MILE AREA - If the Secretary of the Army Makes a determination pursuant to subsection (b) that the "Eight and One Half Square Mile Area" will be adversely affected, the Secretary of the Army is authorized and directed to construct a flood protection system for that portion of presently developed land within such area."

Pursuant to the above subsection of P.L.101-229, the COE developed a mitigation levee project for our area that went through an Environmental Impact Statement process and was presented to Congress in 1992 (with agency agreement including Everglades National Park and Department of the Interior). The contract to build the MWD Project, including the COE levee was signed with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in 1994. Yet, to date, not one shovel of dirt to build the levee promised us by Congress has been turned. And the $150 million dollar MWD project (the COE levee is a $39 million part of MWD), that was to be completed by 1997, continues to be delayed. In fact, there are two structures built by the COE at five million dollars each sitting idle on Tamiami Trail as monuments to this project's failure.

I now understand that Senior officials in Washington have determined that removing us from our homes and our land, in defiance of the will of Congress, is flood protection. If the clear language that was provided by Congress to protect us can be twisted is this way, what value, I wonder, will the assurances in WRDA be to those who are being assured? I have come to speak to you today to solicit your support for our community. We know that your Committee "holds the purse strings" for this multi-billion dollar Everglades restoration project. We have hope that you will be able to do what nobody else has been able to do -- make the government agencies follow the law. We have hope that you will tell them that Congressional support for restoration depends on the COE and DOI constructing and implementing the Modified Water Deliveries Project as directed by Congress in PL 101-229. We honestly hope that you will tell DOI to stop violating our private property rights and demand that the COE construct the levee around our land, as Congress told them to do.

EVERGLADES RESTORATION MUST NOT HURT PEOPLE UNNECESSARILY Everglades Restoration is an unprecedented project, that requires enormous cooperation, not just from government, but from ordinary citizens who will be asked to share the economic burden for the implementation of this project.

Citizen cooperation will only be acquired through trust, respect for citizen's property rights, and most important accountability from government to its citizens. Issues involving violations of property rights and discrimination will greatly taint this process in a manner that could halt this multi-billion dollar project desperately needed to restore the Everglades and the South Florida ecosystem. That is why the story of the 8.5 SMA is so important to your Committee. You can learn from our sad experience.

To this day, even with project approval and an executed contract to implement this Congressionally authorized public law, the Modified Water Deliveries Project continues to be halted, while the Everglades it is designed to help (especially Miccosukee Tribal lands), continues to die.

The restoration of an 18,000 square mile ecosystem is being held hostage due to the Department of the Interior's attempts to get our tiny 8.5 SMA for a Park Buffer, which they know is not allowed under P.L.101-229, just like they know our land is not necessary for Everglades for restoration The irony is that the NPS has Park Rangers living in $300,000 houses to the west of us in the Everglades National Park Expansion Area that they took from private residents, because they claimed it was too environmentally sensitive for anybody to live there.

The DOI, inspired by Park Superintendent Dick Ring, even coaxed the SFWMD to try to take our land by offering 50% of federal restoration money to cover the costs, even though they were prevented by law from doing so at the time. With this DOI support, the SFWMD Governing Board voted in November 1998 to acquire our land against our will. But this decision was later voided because of violations of the Florida Sunshine law. The lesson for this Committee is that selfish government agencies want to use precious federal restoration taxpayer dollars to buy our land even though years of studies, including reports of three Florida Governors and an Act of Congress, have concluded that the 8.5 Square Mile Area is not necessary for Everglades restoration.

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST A MINORITY COMMUNITY For the residents of the 8.5 SMA, many of whom are mostly Cuban exiles, the past ten years has been an emotional roller coaster without an end in sight. Even today, we stand waiting for the results of yet another Supplemental EIS (SEIS) on which the COE is wasting federal taxpayer dollars so that the local sponsor SFWMD can determine the future of our area, instead of implementing the COE project that they delivered to Congress in 1992 and still stand behind. We are hoping that this study will finalize a decade of mental anguish and discrimination that we have suffered under this Everglades restoration ruse, but we are not counting on it. It is too tempting for local government's to try to solve local problems by using federal restoration dollars, even if it means destroying a minority community.

As former residents of a Communist country that we were forced to flee, our family never imagined that thirty years later we would once again be faced with the government taking our land and our homes against our will -- especially by what is supposed to be "a government for the people and by the people."

We certainly never expected to be discriminated against in a country that has laws to prevent such discrimination. The discrimination against our minority community was most evident after Hurricane Irene when the flooding was made worse in many areas of Miami-Dade County because of the failure to implement the Modified Water Deliveries project. While adjacent communities in West Miami and Sweetwater were receiving emergency pumps for flood relief the next day after the storm, our community was deprived of any emergency relief and attempts by the residents to relieve the situation were stopped by ENP and the SFWMD from doing so. Do you know what it's like to be treated as less than human?

As a result of the continued discrimination against our Latino community by government agencies, one of the oldest and most respected Latin organizations, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has passed a resolution denouncing the discrimination against us and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in the Modified Water Deliveries Project (attached). LULAC also requests that the MWD project (P.L.101-229) be implemented as soon as possible.

Like LULAC, many other Hispanic civil rights organizations are publicly supporting us. They include: Junta Patriotica Cubana, Municipios de Cuba en Exilio, Presidio Politico, AMAC, Asociacion de Ministros y Oberos, Evangelicos, Inc., Asociacion del Municipio de Remedios en Exilio. In addition elected representatives, such as Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and state representatives Rudy Garcia and Manuel Prieguez, as well as the West Kendall Community Council have recognized the injustice that is being perpetrated against our exile community, whose only crime has been acquiring the American Dream in the Country we all thought was the land of freedom and Constitutional rights.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida has also given us their kind support, as they understand through their own struggle with the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service how poorly they treat minorities. These Native Americans have also had to fight attempts by DOI and ENP to remove them from their land under the guise of Everglades restoration.

DEMANDING COMPLETION OF THE MODIFIED WATER DELIVERIES PROJECT It should be noted that LULAC is not the only organization concerned about the flooding of ours and adjacent communities because of the inability of those in charge to implement the Congressionally mandated MWD project. The Miami Dade County League of Cities, comprised of all the Mayors in Miami-Dade County, unanimously passed a resolution to implement the MWD project and investigate why it hasn't been completed. The West Kendall Community Council also passed such a resolution. After Hurricane Irene, Miami Dade County set up a flooding task force to investigate the situation. Just last Thursday on February 24, 2000, Miami-Dade County passed a resolution that urges the COE not to undertake any operational changes that compromise flood protection until the Task Force has an opportunity to issue its report in June 2000. It is important for this Committee to realize that the urban and agricultural communities are concerned about how the failure to implement MWD has impacted their flood protection and how the restoration plan currently before you might also do so. It is ironic to see the controversy that has erupted since the brave little boy, Elian, was rescued at sea. We are all working to defend Elian's right to stay in this free country, even while our constitutional rights as citizens in this Country are being violated. We trust that your Committee will use the power that has been entrusted to you to stop the violation of our basic human rights by these rogue government agencies.

I refuse to believe that Congress will continue to allow these selfish agencies to override the laws of the land. Peoples' feelings and their constitutional rights may mean nothing to DO and NPS but I believe they mean something to this Congress and this Committee. There is absolutely no science to support their ruthless confiscation of our land. Yet, the people of the 8.5 SMA, for the most part Cuban American citizens, are locked in yet another struggle to keep our homes and our land. Please help us stop the continued agency attempts to take peoples homes against their will under the guise of Everglades Restoration.

THE AMERICAN DREAM BECOMES AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE 8.5 SQUARE MILE AREA Remember, we are people who fled to the United States 30 years ago to escape the tyranny of Fidel Castro. We came in search of the democratic freedom we were being denied in our home country. Our families struggled to rebuild our homes, and our lives, in a beautiful and fruitful land that resembled the one that we were forced to leave behind in order to provide a better future for our children. Many of the residents do not even speak the language because they came to this country eager to work, and not to be a burden to anyone. These Cuban exiles worked very hard to feed their families and save their money to accomplish the American Dream...a home and land of their own in the land of freedom and constitutional rights. We chose the 8.5 SMA to build the American Dream. But, for us, the American Dream has become a nightmare. Sadly, this time our nightmare does not come from a communist dictator, but instead from United States government agencies who are attempting to remove us from our legal homes against our will.

Our small community suffered the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This experience brought us even closer. We struggled once again to rebuild the damage caused by Mother Nature and we did so legally with rebuilding permits from Miami-Dade County's Department of Building and Zoning. We replanted our trees and became, once again, a very productive agricultural community.

For those who wrongly and unjustly claim we live in a swamp, our lands must be blessed by the hand of God. In our community that is at least 80% non-wetland and high ground, we grow a variety of tropical fruits including, Mamey, Mangoes, Caimitillo, Grapefruit, Guava, Lemons, Limes, Lychee, Papaya, Tangerines, Corn, Cauliflower, Bell Peppers, Tomatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Malanga, Squash, Yucca, Zucchini and other vegetables are also harvested in our community. We also raise horses and cows. One of our residents Julio Concepcion, also a Cuban exile, raises honeybees. Julio made the harrowing escape from Cuba twice, once with his wife and once with his mother. He almost drowned in one crossing, "What," he asks the people after his land, "will become of my millions of bees?"

Every property owner in our community has their own unique history. Many families, including my own, were united after decades apart. The 8.5 SMA was an area where they could build close to each other, just like back in their native country. Many children raised in this community married and purchased land in the area to live close to their parents, so that they could raise their children away from the hassles of the city. The elderly members of the community all say that away from their native land, the 8.5 SMA is where they want to die and be buried. These people, for the most part, are too old to start over. Besides, there is no other comparable place in Miami-Dade County where we can move with our families, our horses, our cows, etc.

I think their pain is best described in an April 1999 statement of Armando J. Prieto, a 35 year resident of the 8.5 SMA who built his house with his own hands: "We feel that we have been in limbo--we have felt that we are at a disadvantage because we don't know what will happen next. My wife and I feel that our lives and property are not for sale. I want to spend the last days of my life in my home surrounded by nature and the trees in my orchard. My wife and I love our land. In the late 1960s, I planted a shade tree in my front yard. It was one of the first trees that I planted. When Hurricane Andrew knocked it down, I spent $500 to stand it back up, so it wouldn't die. After the tree was doing well, my wife and I carved our initials in the tree and it is still there and thriving. My recently married grandson and his wife have just carve their initials in this tree as well. This is how much we love our land. I am an old man. When I die, I have asked my wife and daughters to bury me on my property, if that is possible. My wife and I are not willing sellers but the District makes it sound like my wife and I have no choice and that makes us sad."

For me, personally, this whole ordeal being perpetrated under the guise of Everglades restoration is déjà vu, as I clearly remember what my parents endured in Cuba trying to bring us to this country. Now, I am seeing all these innocent, elderly people, at a time when they should be at peace with themselves (retired and enjoying all that they worked so hard to achieve) instead living fearfully with uncertainty as to what their future will be. And, I see my Hispanic and non-Hispanic neighbors' present (their house, their animals, the land they love) and their future (what future?) being clouded.

For my family, the Aguileras, who were forced to leave our homes in Cuba, there is no other place to go. We are what they call in Cuba guajiros, country folk. As my husband's brother Lao once told a reporter, "There comes a time when guajiros build a love for a piece of land. Since I left Cuba, I've had the same telephone number, the same address. If I fall asleep on my horse, it will come here."

I don't think people understand what our land means to us -- people who have lost our land once before to a dictator.

The people of the 8.5 SMA will continue the fight to preserve our American Dream. I remind those who are attempting to take our homes that we are, for the most part, an exile community living in an area of South Florida that has a large Cuban American population. We know when it comes to threats to our property rights and human rights, our Cuban brothers and sisters will take our issue very personally. They will stop what happened to us in Cuba from happening here. Elian Gonzalez is a good example of the solidarity of our community when it comes to constitutional rights. It is tragic that at a time when we should be soliciting the support of the Hispanic community for Everglades Restoration, things are being done that will erode that support.

CONGRESS CAN MAKE EVERGLADES RESTORATION A BEAUTIFUL THING BY DEMANDING COMPLIANCE WITH P.L. 101-229 Everglades Restoration should be a beautiful thing supported by all. Everglades Restoration should not be an ugly process of using federal dollars to hurt people and take away their land, when it is not necessary. You can make Everglades Restoration a beautiful thing. You can ensure the future of the Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents of the 8.5 SMA by writing WRDA in such a way that rogue government agencies can no longer defy Congress and the law.

Please do this. Please do this, not only for the people of the 8.5 SMA, but for all the people of South Florida who will benefit from this historic project and for all the people of this country who will be asked to pay for it. Everglades restoration must never again be wrongly used by selfish government agencies to accomplish non-restoration objectives by trampling the rights and lives of innocent people. We place our lives and the future of our community in your hands.

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