No Sale

The state once aimed to buy a big chunk of the Everglades. But that was before Dexter Lehtinen came along.

Almost six months after a state board approved purchase of the 8 1_2 Square Mile Area, the plan is as good as dead. Dexter Lehtinen, former U.S. Attorney in Miami and counsel for the Miccosukee Indian Tribe, Inc., has spearheaded the effort to slay it. Gov. Jeb Bush has also helped doom the initiative by appointing board members less inclined than their predecessors to support the buyout.

And a congressional subcommittee this week heard testimony urging Congress to force the U.S. Department of the Interior to reconsider its offer to pay 50 percent of the estimated $112 million acquisition cost. (Some naturalists hold that procuring the land and flooding it will help bring the Everglades closer to their natural state.)

"It is just a matter of which arrow will kill it," contends Lehtinen, who has filed lawsuits and lobbied county, state, and federal governments to stop the plan. Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, favors purchasing the area, yet acknowledges the tide has turned: "I recognize things are changing. The power has shifted."

Lehtinen has long opposed a buyout. He testified against the plan when the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board voted for it this past November 12. He insists a lengthy buyout process will delay the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from moving water off Miccosukee land to the north.

Lehtinen's campaign to overturn the board's decision began in earnest when he filed a lawsuit on February 9 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The suit alleges that federal, state, and county regulators, who produced a report justifying the buyout, violated Florida's sunshine law. (The law forbids elected officials from discussing the public's business in private.)

On April 22 Lehtinen filed another suit demanding an admission from the SFWMD that it lacks authority to condemn the land west of Krome Avenue between SW 168th Street and Richmond Drive. Lehtinen also alleges that officials didn't hold the requisite public meetings before earmarking funds for the purchase.

Moreover Lehtinen says he has lobbied state legislators and it appears unlikely that they will authorize SFWMD to condemn homes in the area during the 1999 legislative session, which ends April 30.

Lehtinen's campaign has made an impression in Washington, too. (He insists his wife, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, did not help him.) On April 27 the Congressional Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, chaired by Utah Republican James V. Hansen, held an oversight hearing largely to discuss the issue of the 8 1_2 Square Mile Area. After hearing testimony from Lehtinen, area residents, and Interior officials, committee members vowed to search for a solution. Lehtinen hopes Congress will reject a buyout and force implementation of a 1989 plan to construct a pump and levee to lessen flooding.

In early April Lehtinen invited Tod Hull, a subcommittee staffer who works in Hansen's office, and fellow staffer Allen Freemyer to come to Miami to investigate. After touring the area and meeting with residents, Hull became convinced buying the area was a mistake; it would only delay a plan to increase water flows to Everglades National Park. "I think it would be a wise decision [for the Interior Department] to drop the thought that they need to acquire the 8 1_2 Square Mile Area," he says. A major delay could be residents who refuse to sell. "These people will not go down easy," he says. "You are talking years and years."

At the local level Lehtinen has solicited support from Cuban exile organizations and other local groups with an eye to pressuring the Miami-Dade County Commission. The district governing board's buyout plan depends on county (and federal) contributions. Although the commission has yet to discuss the issue, four commissioners have already recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest. Of the remaining nine, Lehtinen says he has lobbied eight. He says he is "quite sure" there are enough votes to reject county participation in the scheme.

On April 14 Lehtinen convinced Community Council 11, a West Kendall zoning board, to recommend against the buyout. By a vote of six to one, members issued a nonbinding resolution to the county commission to that effect. But there's a catch: The 8 1_2 Square Mile Area is outside the council's jurisdiction.

All the local and federal effort will probably prove unnecessary. The SFWMD governing board will likely decide the area's fate. In March Bush appointed six new members to the nine-member board. One of the new group's first acts was to fire executive director Sam Poole, who strongly favored the buyout.

The board is presently studying the decisionmaking process and exploring other alternatives. "I am very concerned," says Mike Collins, who was appointed board chairman on March 10. "I just want to do whatever will move the water the fastest."

jacob_bernstein@miaminewtimes.com

 
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