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.

In 1987 code-enforcement officers accused Isabel Morales of illegal use of fill on her property. (Dade has enacted strict laws regulating the amount and type of fill used in wetlands, as well as its placement. The regulations are meant to protect groundwater against contamination and to ensure an uninhibited recharge of the groundwater aquifer.) The Morales case eventually wound up in court, where the issue was theoretically settled. Not according to Morales. She contends that her former attorney signed the settlement agreement, which called for her to remove some of the fill and apply for a proper permit, without her permission. Insisting there never was any illegal fill to begin with, she has refused to abide by the agreement and has appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeal.

During their investigation, county officials discovered that the Moraleses had converted a legal "agricultural structure" into a primary residence. Morales argues that the so-called agricultural structure was in reality a two-bedroom "weekend" residence and storage shed, including a bathroom and a living room, all of which was legal. She admits, though, that after Hurricane Andrew, she and her husband added a bedroom, a bathroom, a study, and a kitchen -- all without proper permits. The structure is now beautiful, decidedly unshedlike, and in violation of the law. Morales, her husband, and their two children live in it full-time.

A judge has ordered the Moraleses to either knock down their house or reconvert it to a storage shed. Morales, who has hired and fired two separate law firms and is now representing herself, has taken that matter, too, to the Third District Court of Appeal. She is aware her house breaks the law, but has no intention of altering it. Her fight, she says, is over the 1981 rezoning ordinance that prevents her from legally building a house on her property. "I'm going to fight these cases until they reach the Supreme Court," she trumpets.

Standing on the wraparound stone porch of the offending structure, Morales points proudly to her driveway, which at the moment is topped with a mesh of wire; her husband is resurfacing it to repair damage caused by Tropical Storm Gordon. "No, he doesn't have a permit," she remarks. "But we have to be able to get in and out of here, don't we?"

Though quixotic, Morales's fight is nonetheless emblematic of a widespread sentiment among area residents: They've lost control of their own destiny to larger political and environmental forces, and they're willing to fight for whatever they have left. "The government has the attitude that they're going to do what they want," asserts Jill Hoog, a flight attendant who moved to the area with her family in 1975. "Many people think government is going to take care of them. But I don't think that's the way government works. They keep saying, 'The Constitution is going to protect us.' But I've said, 'Eminent domain is also in the Constitution, folks.' It's taken a lot of time to get them to realize the government is not looking out for our best interests."

"What I'm resentful of is the way we've been treated," adds Bonni Bensch. "First we're going to get flood control. Then we're not going to get flood control. We're going to be bought out. We're not going to be bought out."

The federal Flood Control Act, passed in 1965, was to have provided flood protection for winter farming operations in and around the 812 Square Mile Area. But the project was never undertaken; officials say it was "deauthorized" in 1990. Talk of flood protection and acquisition also came up in the mid- to late 1980s, when two state planning studies scrutinized the region. While both groups concluded that a public buyout would be the best way to protect the environmentally sensitive resources of the East Everglades, neither included the 812 Square Mile Area in its acquisition recommendations.

Then in 1989 Everglades National Park managers won congressional approval to expand the park and to restore the "historic" natural water flow in the East Everglades. Included in that deal were provisions for the engineering feat that was to protect homeowners against increased flooding. Area residents who believed they'd won the flood protection they had sought for so long soon learned otherwise -- all they had been given was a guarantee that the flooding would get no worse.

Talk of a government buyout resurfaced two years ago, after Hurricane Andrew. "When the storm came through and inflicted significant damage on this unprotected area, it made people take a second look," explains Estus Whitfield, the policy coordinator for the Environmental, Community, and Economic Development Unit in the Executive Office of the Governor and Chiles's representative on the 812 Square Mile Area Study Committee. Early this past year, Congress authorized the creation of a pool of state, federal, and county money to buy land in the area, as well as in two other chunks of the East Everglades deemed necessary for restoration. Even then, however, no specific plans were made for purchase.

And finally the governor's committee was formed to study the practicality of forging ahead with the canal-and-levee plan. "Initially I was laughing when I heard about its formation, because we've been through at least five different types of committee meetings," scoffs Jill Hoog. "We've just been around in circles so many times."

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