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.

"You've read the Constitution of the United States?" blurts Rafael Herrera, a Metro-Dade corrections officer who is president of the Redland Glades Community Association, the area's homeowners' group. "They're violating everything! All our constitutional rights!"

"I'm prepared to burn my house down," declares fellow resident Manny Duarte, a Santero and former fashion model who moved to the area five years ago. "I worked hard for it; I'd rather burn it than be made to sell it."

Estus Whitfield, Governor Chiles's representative on the 812 Square Mile Area Study Committee, says he is sympathetic to the "hurt" the residents are feeling. And, he stresses, the committee is attempting to do what's best for the neighborhood. "We know these are people who have a problem -- flooding. And what government is about is to help people with their problems. I'm trying to create peace," he insists.

Any chance for peace was probably lost long ago, yet another casualty of the refusal -- on the part of citizens and government alike -- to limit growth on Dade's environmentally fragile frontier.

Like many other area residents, Bonni and Fred Bensch built their house with their own hands. The spacious four-bedroom home sits on a four-acre lot, surrounded by oak, lime, and avocado trees. "I wanted to get my sons away from the drugs, crime, and all," explains Bonni Bensch, a thin, high-strung physical therapist. "I just wanted to raise them in the country." So her three boys, now grown, spent their youth outdoors, raising quail and rabbits, and camping.

Historically, the tract now known as the 812 Square Mile Area was a sawgrass prairie that provided habitat for wading birds and deer, according to Bob Johnson, chief hydrologist for Everglades National Park. Underwater for several weeks to a few months per year, the region was located between a wide fork in the River of Grass: eastern Shark River Slough -- the major waterway in the central Glades -- and Taylor Slough, which carries water into the southern reaches of the peninsula and Florida Bay.

Farmers first cultivated the land in the 1950s, courtesy of the massive system of canals and levees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed to dry out coastal terrain throughout central and southern Florida. By the time the Bensches arrived in 1973, East Everglades land speculation had begun in earnest.

Those who wanted to escape the growing metropolis of Miami willingly gave up the amenities of urban life -- paved roads, garbage collection, door-to-door postal delivery, water and sewer lines, and storm-water drainage. And despite the growing population, Dade officials never planned to provide those services, says Robert Usherson, chief of the Metropolitan Planning Division of the Metro-Dade Planning Department.

During the Seventies, however, county authorities began to worry about the public-safety ramifications of development in the flood-prone area. At the same time, Usherson says, they foresaw that a growing population would become increasingly demanding of the government to provide flood protection. In 1981, after years of studies, Metro-Dade commissioners approved a controversial ordinance that specifically limited residential densities in the area to one residence per forty acres, down from the previously permitted one house per five acres. In response, 27 families, including the Bensches, filed a federal lawsuit accusing state and local officials of illegally reducing the value of their land.

While the ordinance, which has remained in effect while the suit is pending, has inhibited legal development, it hasn't stopped the illegal variety. The 1990 census indicates that the area has a population of 640, but residents say their own head count has turned up about 700 families. Throughout the 812 Square Mile Area, barns and sheds have sprouted additions and satellite dishes. At least two illegal bars that double as quasi-whorehouses are well-known in the neighborhood, as are a number of unauthorized car-repair garages. Residents report other illegal businesses, including pig farming and stolen-car chop shops.

In an initial survey that county authorities say will be followed by increased enforcement, officials tallied 102 house trailers -- of which only one was legal. They also counted 357 buildings that appeared to be residences, but only 135 were found to have homestead exemptions. (A homestead exemption is a tax break for a primary abode; presumably a homeowner would seek one if he lived in a legally sanctioned residence.)

Blame Dade's sorrowfully flimsy code-enforcement apparatus for the proliferation of illegal construction. Ronald Szep, assistant director of Metro's Building and Zoning department, says his officers respond only to complaints. "We try not to single out anyone on a proactive basis," Szep explains, adding that the county's interdepartmental sweep of the 812 Square Mile Area was prompted by recent scrutiny by the governor's committee.

Some violations, though, haven't remained hidden in the prodigious underbrush. One of the longest-running code-enforcement cases, and one that embodies the zeal and independent spirit of the 812 Square Mile Area's population, involves Isabel Morales. Along with her husband Jesus, she bought a two-and-a-half-acre parcel on SW 209th Avenue in 1985, with the intention of planting a grove of mango and mamey trees. "My husband is a farmer from Cuba, that's all he's done his whole life," says Morales, who was born in Havana and grew up in New York.

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