The Last Frontier

When authorities pledged to reflood the Everglades, they tried to accommodate residents of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area in Southwest Dade. They're still trying.

This is how deep in the boonies Madeleine Fortin lives: A round-trip expedition to the nearest Publix takes more than 40 minutes in driving time alone. To get to her house, you have to travel beyond the farthest reaches of West Kendall, out past the newest insta-housing developments that seem to spring up weekly from that soggy terrain. To trek to Fortin's house is to learn that Krome Avenue isn't, in fact, the western boundary of known civilization in Dade County.

From Krome you still have a long way to go; two miles west along SW 168th Street, past large tracts of commercial farmland and groves, then through a gap in the earthen levee that runs all the way from Broward and was built in the 1950s to prevent Dade from flooding -- at least the part of Dade that lies east of the levee.

Another couple of miles west of the levee, a handmade wooden street sign painted with the number 218 indicates the next turn. That's SW 218th Avenue, a treacherously potholed dirt road a half-mile or so long, plunging through brush, past small groves and farms and a few modest ranch-style homes, before dead-ending at Fortin's house, a three-bedroom cement-block structure with a porch and plenty of Mexican tile and a working fireplace and cool breezes that circulate through the rooms.

"I moved out here because I wanted to live where it was nice and quiet, and I didn't want to be surrounded by a lot of people, and where I could have a big yard to plant vegetables," says Fortin, an earnest woman who works part-time as a registered nurse. "I just feel more at home out here. Since I moved here in September, I've met more people than in the three years I lived in Kendall." A wrought-iron spiral staircase on one side of the house leads to a gently sloping roof. "Pretty great, huh?" Fortin says with the slight drawl she picked up while living in Alabama. She gestures broadly toward the expanse of Everglades that rolls out from her property to the north and west, rattles off the names of the birds she has spotted near her land: belted kingfisher, snowy egret, white ibis, great blue heron, night heron, meadowlark, woodpecker, oriole, finch.

Fortin lives in a region known as the 812 Square Mile Area, the only residential "community" in Dade that sits west of the earthen levee. Bounded on the north and south by SW 104th and SW 168th streets, on the west by SW 221st Avenue, on the east by the levee, it's a sparsely populated territory of chassis-bending dirt roads, inhabited by iconoclasts who have fled the congestion and urban ills of city life in the pioneering spirit of self-determination.

But if solitude and independence is what they were after, it isn't what they're getting: The 812 Square Mile Area has been a topic of public debate for nearly twenty years. It has also suffered almost total governmental neglect, its far-flung location and a laissez-faire attitude on the part of authorities having resulted in rampant illegal dumping (often by outsiders) and the seemingly unfettered propagation of unpermitted houses and illegal businesses and industries. While the irregularly shaped parcel of land lies within the borders of Dade County, it is outside Metro-Dade's urban-development boundary, which means few services such as storm-water drainage and garbage collection are available to residents. No one is even certain of the region's population: Estimates range from the 1990 census figure of 640 to well over 1200.

Of the most public concern is the fact that the area abuts the newly extended eastern boundary of Everglades National Park. Scientists agree that to save the dying Everglades -- and, by extension, Florida Bay -- the River of Grass must be replenished. In addition to sending more fresh water directly into the Everglades, a planned restoration program also requires reflooding parts of the East Everglades that previously had been drained for agricultural use. While officials have targeted for acquisition huge tracts of privately owned Southwest Dade farmland, they have yet to decide what should be done about the 812 Square Mile Area.

This past July, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed a group of local, state, and federal officials to make that decision. Congress has authorized the construction of a system of drainage canals and levees to offset water-level increases in the 812 Square Mile Area brought on by the future restoking of Everglades National Park. However, that so-called "flood-mitigation" system, estimated to cost about $31 million, would only counteract the anticipated additional water flow to an area whose residents constantly contend with flooding as it is. (During Tropical Storm Gordon, for instance, the National Guard was called in to ferry children to school.) Possibilities now being considered by the governor's committee range from going ahead with the $31 million mitigation program to constructing a limited flood-control system to buying all the land via eminent domain (the right of the government to appropriate private property for public use).

While the committee appears poised to recommend a compromise that would address the ongoing flooding problem while allowing the majority of residents to remain in their homes, many inhabitants demand nothing less than full flood protection for the entire area. They complain that they have listened to false promises of flood control and unrealized buyout plans for years, leaving them unsure whether they should invest in improvements to their properties or prepare to abandon them. The neighborhood seethes with mistrust of authority and with the sentiment that individual rights are being sacrificed to scientifically unsound environmentalism. Conspiracy theories about back-room deals between government leaders and big real estate interests are common community gossip.

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