Be It Ever So Humble, It's Taking on Florida
(Note: This New York Times "reporter" does not even try to disguise her contempt for the fact that Jesse Hardy has a real love for his land and home. She fairly spits with venom, so vituperative that she openly contradicts herself: "The state has acquired more than 19,000 parcels in the South Blocks, as the neighborhood is known, and now its sights are set on Mr. Hardy, the final holdout, along with the Miccosukee Indians, who have resisted selling about 800 acres." A "final holdout" would not ALSO be fighting this Wildlands Project land control scheme "along with" an Indian tribe. Describing his 160 acres and home in scathing terms -- making one wonder if he might not want to consider filing a lawsuit with her employer, the New York Times, for slander -- she does not see the contradiction of calling 160 acres and a home part of a "failed subdivision." Any subdivision I've ever seen had building lots substantially smaller than 160 acres. No, Ms. Goodnough, of Brooklyn, New York, seems to relish judging others' property by her own 'standards'. She even slanders this man's morals by insinuating that, because he calls Tommy his son, that there's something afoot between Jesse and Tommy's mother. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, one must wonder if Jesse knew how she'd use words to crucify him to the New York Times readership. This article is for the Sunday edition, no less. In this rant about a man that dares say no to Wildlands Project promulgators, shortly after she writes about the megabillion-dollar plan, which includes "capturing more of it for new development", she contradicts the "redevelopment" by assuring readers that: "The plan is to tear up roads and plug canals that crisscross the area, then turn it back into wetlands, essentially by letting it flood during the rainy season.")
June 13, 2004
By Abby Goodnough [email protected]
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Naples, Florida - The land that Jesse James Hardy loves is unlovely.
It is flat and dusty, with slash pine, cabbage palms and the bare-bones house he built, its porch screens ripped and flapping. He sold his horse because in summer, the mosquitoes on its back were as thick as a blanket.
Breezes hardly ever pass through, and until recently, neither did visitors.
It is hard to believe Florida would offer Mr. Hardy $4.5 million for his 160 scrubby acres here in the state's southwestern corner, and perhaps harder to believe that Mr. Hardy, a 68-year-old with prostate cancer and little income, would turn the money down.
But both happened recently, and now a showdown is brewing.

The state wants Mr. Hardy's land for a huge replumbing of the Everglades, meant to restore the natural flow of rainwater from Lake Okeechobee south toward the ocean.

The $8 billion plan, more than a decade in the making, involves cleaning the polluted water flow, capturing more of it for new development and redistributing the rest to nourish 12 million acres of saw grass and swamp across South Florida.

Ground zero for the first stage of the project is Mr. Hardy's neighborhood, a failed subdivision called Southern Golden Gate Estates that has served as a hideout for drug smugglers, a training base for a Cuban paramilitary group and a dumping ground for stolen cars.

The plan is to tear up roads and plug canals that crisscross the area, then turn it back into wetlands, essentially by letting it flood during the rainy season.

The state has acquired more than 19,000 parcels in the South Blocks, as the neighborhood is known, and now its sights are set on Mr. Hardy, the final holdout, along with the Miccosukee Indians, who have resisted selling about 800 acres.

"I will not sign for them to take my home," Mr. Hardy said, showing his latest guests around a broad yard dotted with scrap piles, rabbit and hamster cages, and cars in various states of disrepair. "Just will not do it. If I can't depend on my land, what can I depend on?"

Since Mr. Hardy is one of the only South Blocks property owners who have lived on their land -- most were absentee investors -- the state will not start eminent domain proceedings until it considers every alternative exhausted.

But in May, after 19 months of negotiating and offers ranging from $711,725 to $4.5 million, Governor Jeb Bush and his cabinet directed the Department of Environmental Protection to condemn Mr. Hardy's property if he did not accept money or a land swap by August 31.

Property rights advocates from as far away as Oregon have rallied around Mr. Hardy, questioning why the state would favor an environmental project that is not even sure to succeed over a citizen's right to his piece of earth. One wrote "The Ballad of Jesse Hardy," a bluegrass tune that vilifies the state and environmentalists with lines like "He's been deviled by greeners, and deviled by the mob/That come from Tallahassee to steal from him and rob!"

They are not the first to attack the Everglades plan, which is so large and complex that even those immersed in it become tongue-tied trying to explain it. The plan, which comprises more than 60 separate projects totaling more than 2.4 million acres, has been called both the world's largest, most important ecological restoration and an ill-conceived boondoggle. After angering Congress last year by authorizing a delay in carrying out a crucial piece of the plan, the state sought to build political capital by starting early on the South Blocks project, in a splashy groundbreaking last October that starred Governor Bush in a hard hat.

Conspiracy theories about the plan abound in Mr. Hardy's neck of the woods. Among them is that its main purpose is to hoard water for developers and rich South Floridians like those who live in multimillion-dollar mansions on the Naples waterfront. This, after all, is backcountry Collier County, only miles from those mansions but much more distant in spirit, peopled with leathery-skinned hunters, all-terrain-vehicle riders and loners who relish their privacy.

The New York Times

Mr. Hardy's home, in a failed subdivision, offers few amenities.

Mr. Hardy, skinny and agile with a long white beard, said it was spurious even to consider the South Blocks as part of the Everglades -- just another attempt by environmentalists to snatch more land from people and give it to animals, he said darkly.

"The Everglades is thataway," he said, hitching a thumb in the direction of Everglades National Park, whose closest entrance is about 40 miles east of the South Blocks.

"It's coming down to the point where people hate these environmentalists. Nothing satisfies them."

Mr. Hardy said his dream was to start a fish farm -- a potentially lucrative enterprise, he said, given that "the ocean can't keep feeding us forever."

Collier County gave him permission in 2001 to dig rock pits that would serve as fish ponds, and with the help of contractors he has already dug one. He sells limestone fill from the pit to pay the contractors, he said, saving a small part of the profit for stocking his ponds with bass, bream and soft-shelled turtles.

But the state says the Southern Golden Gate project will eventually cause Mr. Hardy's land to flood, making it impossible for him to live or operate a business there.

Mr. Hardy dismissed that as nonsense and said that even if it did flood, he would not hold the state liable.

"There's not going to be any great flood like Noah and the ark," he said.

Mr. Bush asked at an April 13 cabinet meeting whether Mr. Hardy could simply waive his rights to flood protection and stay at his own risk.

But Ernie Barnett, director of ecosystem projects for the Department of Environmental Protection, said that would set a dangerous precedent, not least because the state still hopes to acquire land from other owners for Everglades projects.

Mr. Barnett said letting Mr. Hardy stay would also threaten the Southern Golden Gate project itself, which is to raise the area's water table and spread the flow of water into the Ten Thousand Islands estuary just south of his property.

The state says that rehydrating the South Blocks, which developers drained decades ago to make way for houses that were never built, will let cypress sloughs and pine flatlands flourish, increasing deer, wild boar, wood stork, black bear and even panther populations.

Though cabinet meetings are routinely open to the public, Mr. Hardy did not attend the April 13 session, because he was recovering from radiation treatment. But he dispatched Tara Hilton and her 9-year-old son, Tommy, who live with him, to Tallahassee that day. Mr. Hardy used to date Ms. Hilton's aunt, and the young woman moved in with him after her son was born with hydrocephalus, a condition involving excess fluid in the brain. He and Ms. Hilton are not romantically involved, he said, but he considers Tommy his son.

"If you would just let us stay and it floods, we'll swim out and give you the land," Ms. Hilton told the governor.

The state has offered Mr. Hardy properties that it considers similar in exchange for his 160 acres, but he said that they were not as valuable and that it might be impossible to get approval for a fish farm on them. If Jeb Bush will not rescue him, Mr. Hardy said, maybe [the Governor's] brother, the president, will.

"He's got 1,600 acres there in Crawford, Texas, that he loves very much," Mr. Hardy said. "He pulls the weeds, cuts the brush, rides them dignitaries around in his SUV. How would he feel if somebody came down there and took it away?"

Inside their house, where electricity comes from a generator and a thermometer read close to 100 by late afternoon, Mr. Hardy and Ms. Hilton tried to explain why they preferred this place of snakes and occasional brush fires to one with central air and a swimming pool.

For Mr. Hardy, it is in his genes: his parents were raccoon trappers in a tiny Panhandle town, and he never had electricity until he joined the Navy at 17. He bought the land in 1976 for $60,000, eager to escape Miami, where he had worked as a real estate agent and used-car salesman.

Ms. Hilton offered a different view. "I don't have to worry about some stranger coming up and grabbing my son like they do in the suburbs," she said. "There are no street lights. You can see all the stars, even a comet. I lay in my bed and watch the planes come over from Naples, watch the sun come up."