The Final Harvest

Developers are hungrily eyeing Dade's agricultural heartland, where farmers are a dwindling breed

The former county planner sees one major difference between the current plan and that of twenty years ago -- increased support from nursery growers and Redland's residents. But Alan Farago, chairman of the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club, holds a more pessimistic outlook. "In my view," he says, "farmers and environmentalists are really on the same side of the table, although that doesn't happen here because [farmers have] given up on the government. This business of 'Let's get government out of our lives' is really a smoke screen for 'Let's get government to do what benefits [us] personally.'"

Like the nursery farmers, environmentalists have a way of eliciting epithets from Farm Bureau supporters. Names like "predators" and "carpetbaggers" who work in collusion with Big Brother toward a host of evils, from turning schoolchildren against growers to demanding the condemnation of private property for public use.

For the Farm Bureau, the fight is not about personal benefit. It's a basic issue of property rights, members insist, and of permitting farmers to use their knowledge to determine their own destiny.

Those property rights, they say, have been abused for years. For example, long before Everglades National Park was established, farmers cultivated an area within it called the Hole-in-the-Donut. When the federal government decided to absorb the Hole-in-the Donut into the park, the farmers asked that they be allowed to phase out their cultivation, after which they would replant the area with native species. The federal government turned them down, only to have the area eventually overrun with exotic trees.

But times have changed. In 1996 the state paid a land corporation primarily composed of five families $43 million (which included lawyers' fees and interest) for 5200 acres -- three times what they originally paid for the land -- in an area near the Everglades known as the Frog Pond. It will ultimately serve as a wetland buffer for the park and a water storage area.

"Do you own a home?" asks Steve Sapp, current Farm Bureau president and a lime and bean grower, trying to explain his frustration. "It would be as if the government told you that you could only have a single person in your house forever, and you couldn't marry."

"And no dogs," adds Fredrick.
"Yeah, and no dogs. That's what they want to say to us: 'You can't do anything on your land but put agriculture on it forever and ever,' and that's not right."

The Farm Bureau's view on private property closely mirrors the legal doctrine called "taking," which some believe should mean that when government condemns land, it should pay what the owner would have earned from the greatest amount of development.

"It's really, in the end, about high-priced lawyers getting top dollar for their clients," says Farago. The taking doctrine is championed by the so-called wise-use movement, an alliance of corporate interests and property-rights associations formed in the 1980s to combat environmental regulations. Farm Bureau chapters across the country have sided with wise-use groups on hot-button issues such as wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone Park, regulation of ozone-depleting chemicals, and wetland preservation.

In particular, the Dade County Farm Bureau earned its wise-use credentials when Tom Kirby took a short film to a Dade County Commission meeting in 1996. To this day, mention of the film draws exclamations from environmentalists and zoning activists who were present in commission chambers that day. When the subject is raised with Kirby, he throws up his hands and says, "I can't get away with anything."

The incident took place at a May 14, 1996, county commission meeting on the development master plan, which exists ostensibly to guide the county's growth. The commission had before it two amendments proposed by the superintendent of Biscayne National Park.

After detailing how runoff from development had decimated marine life in north Biscayne Bay, park director Richard Frost urged commissioners to recommend that the state community affairs office in Tallahassee impose a moratorium on building around southern Biscayne Bay, where the park is located. "South Dade still has a chance to do it right with some long-term planning," Frost told them.

Zoning attorney Stanley Price quickly set the tone for those who opposed the amendments. "We don't like to be told by Big Brother --" he began, as he questioned a building freeze for an area the county has not yet zoned for development.

That's when Tom Kirby strode to the podium, a half-smile on his face. He presented a familiar refrain: There wasn't sufficient science to prove the plan's merits. Too much freshwater might kill manatees, he cautioned gravely. He then introduced the second part of his presentation, stating he hoped it might inject a little levity into the debate.

"I'd like to show you a brief video that best characterizes how the citizens of South Dade feel about the issues before you today," he said.

The lights dimmed as the video Big Park opened with a computer graphic showing a Pac-Man, dressed in an evil grin and a park ranger hat, gobbling up houses. As the theme from the film Jaws plays in the background, the credits dissolve to a scene of pastoral tranquillity: A grandmother in a rocking chair outside her house; a little girl presenting her Raggedy Ann doll to her mother. But the tableau is shattered by the arrival of four Department of Interior park rangers wearing sunglasses and sidearms, one of whom undoes the fastener on his gun holster as the leader breaks into song:

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