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.

On its face, though, convening the group certainly wasn't a weak or pro forma gesture. Chiles gathered a top-flight staff that included Sam Poole, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District; Richard Ring, superintendent of Everglades National Park; Richard Bonner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers's deputy district engineer for project management; and John Renfrow, director of Metro's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). Since its creation this past summer, the committee has met four times. Its members are considering three basic strategies for resolving the 812 Square Mile Area conflict:

Proceed with the $31 million canal-and-levee plan. This would, essentially, preserve the status quo, with no improvement to the existing flooding situation.

Buy the land. While this option would eliminate an impediment to Everglades restoration and provide long-term protection for the park, it is a complicated and expensive proposition. To begin with, county authorities have identified 1537 individual properties in the area. Those owners unwilling to sell -- and committee members maintain there are "many" -- would force the government to enter the litigious arena of condemnation and acquisition via eminent domain. Additionally, officials say cleanup, restoration, and management of the acquired properties carries a high price tag. County and state officials estimate the cost of purchase alone at more than $76 million.

Scrap the $31 million plan and create a so-called flow-way/buffer zone instead. Tentative plans for this option call for the acquisition of the western ten percent of the 812 Square Mile Area, on which engineers would construct a canal-and-levee system to collect water that drained from the developed area. A powerful pump would feed the canal water into a quarter- to half-mile marshy flow-way that would run south into the Everglades. Residents would be required to pay for and build their own internal storm-water collection system that would connect to the apparatus. The cost of the flow-way/buffer zone -- not including the privately built storm-water system -- is estimated at between $31 million and $38 million, with annual operating costs of $75,000 to $100,000.

If devising such ambitious alternatives was a chore, the committee has barely begun to deal with an even more profound task: communicating with the residents. Already an enormous gulf separates them. In their frustration and resentment, many area inhabitants have developed vague conspiracy theories indicting the committee members, their departments, and unnamed real estate interests. Some believe Dade County is purposely devaluing their land by refusing to build roads and other amenities. Others say the county has deliberately refused to enforce building and environmental codes, with the same nefarious intent. The goal, residents maintain, is to force them to sell at artificially suppressed prices, perhaps to a big-time developer who will transform their land into suburban sprawl or a petroleum conglomerate for oil speculation. Yet another rumor asserts that the land-acquisition proposal is motivated by the National Park Service's desire to move its rangers into the houses on the west side of the tract.

Perhaps the most widely held and damaging contention is that the Army Corps of Engineers and the Water Management District are intentionally flooding the 812 Square Mile Area. Tropical Storm Gordon rendered about 80 percent of the roads in the community impassable; in recent weeks, many of the roads have still been drivable in only Jeeps and pickups. Farms and groves, too, have remained flooded. "You can fill this area up like a bathtub if you play the [water control] gates right," Jill Hoog says accusingly. "I feel like I'm being trespassed upon by water. It's illegal to store water on private property, and that's what's happening to us."

In fact, there is a pump that occasionally sends water south into the vicinity, as part of ongoing experimental endeavors leading up to the full-scale restoration program authorized by Congress. But water managers say they have taken care to counteract the resulting rise in groundwater levels in the 812 Square Mile Area. Further, they assert that the pump was last operated at the end of August and that the current flooding was caused by rainwater.

As far as residents are concerned, the high floodwater has served one positive purpose: It galvanized the citizens' movement. But Hoog is circumspect about the momentum. "I've been involved in this [issue] since the late Seventies, and the only time that people get really upset is when they're flooded, because their quality of life is so severely impacted," she cautions. Whether the grassroots momentum will continue, she adds, will likely depend on the study committee's recommended course of action. And, if it comes to that, whether the community can find "good legal representation."

Two and a half weeks ago, the force of the neighborhood's frustration was brought to bear on a small conference room in the South Dade Regional Library in Cutler Ridge. The occasion: a presentation by the governor's committee on its various proposals. (The committee is scheduled to submit a final report with recommendations to the governor by March 1.) On the evening of December 19, a few hundred residents crammed into the room, many sporting canary-yellow T-shirts printed with the motto "Live in harmony/Save the 700 endangered families and the Everglades" and the images of an alligator, a heron, a tree, and a house.

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