By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Richard Bliss found paradise in 1977. That was the year he bought a large parcel of land in the Biscayne Gardens neighborhood of North Miami-Dade County. The property, a full acre and a quarter, was shaded by majestic oak trees and sloped gently to the shoreline of a large manmade lake. Bliss liked the fact that the previous owner of the land was doo-wop king Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, noted for his hits "A Teenager in Love," "Runaround Sue," and "The Wanderer."
At 15180 S. River Dr., Bliss fashioned his Eden on the swath of green he christened "Sherwood Forest," after Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. He posted a wooden sign with the name carved into it on the electric gate out front. The greeting on his answering machine was courtesy of "Little John."
When Bliss built his rustic ranch house there in the early Eighties he did the construction work himself, with a little help from friends. Unlike the properties on either side, where the houses were located close to the road, Bliss placed his dream home near the water. (Each of the three lots is 100 feet wide by roughly 500 feet deep.) From the kitchen window at the rear of the house, Bliss had a sweeping view of the 460-acre lake and the pines that rimmed the opposite shore. And when he walked out his front door, a tree-shaded panorama greeted him. Because no fences separated the three neighbors' properties, the visual effect was that of an expansive estate. "It was kind of like my little piece of country in the middle of the metropolis," Bliss says.
Working all day as an elevator mechanic in high-rise buildings around the county, Bliss looked forward to returning each evening to the refuge of his verdant property. It provided balance in his life. He'd grown up on the Housatonic River in the small town of Shelton, Connecticut, and if he squinted just a little, he could envision Sherwood Forest as a return to childhood happiness.
Now, some 23 years after establishing his tranquil retreat, Bliss says it's under attack. The quiet lakefront is bustling with activity that verges on congestion. Once-friendly neighbors have become enemies. Supposedly helpful county bureaucrats have conspired against him. He feels compelled to patrol the perimeter of his property, conducting photographic surveillance. Confrontations have turned violent. Dog poop has been slung.
Worst of all, though, is the fact that Bliss now faces a huge gray monstrosity where once there was green lawn. A next-door neighbor is building a "storage shed" twice as big as Bliss's own house and has plunked it down in such a way that it blocks views and looms like an angry thunderhead.
In a word, it is war.
Like many neighborhood battles, this one began as a low-intensity conflict that spun out of control. Along the way, Bliss says, he merely sought to have his neighbors live within the law, as he did -- or at least as he thought he was doing.
The neighbor building the storage shed on the south side of Bliss's property is Egerton Anderson, owner of a business called Ultralight Adventures, which operates on Virginia Key near the Rickenbacker Causeway. He bought his three-bedroom waterfront home in late 1996. Bliss had reason to think Anderson would be a good neighbor; in fact he had owned that adjoining property and sold it to Anderson.
Bliss, 51 years old, and Anderson, age 41, had become friends several years earlier when the ultralight enthusiast needed a place to store his planes. Bliss, who had purchased the southern property in order to keep it from being developed, happily made it available to Anderson. He recalls speaking with Anderson about his desire to guard his Valhalla against urban encroachment. The two seemed to understand one another. So when Bliss decided to sell the property, Anderson was the logical choice.
For more than three years the two neighbors maintained cordial relations. Then in the spring of 1999, Bliss noticed unusual activity on Anderson's property. Excavation crews dug out part of Anderson's back yard. A parade of trucks began hauling in fill dirt. Some months later, finally overcome with curiosity, Bliss took a peek at the building permit posted on Anderson's front door. What he read left him stunned.
By then Bliss was already having problems with his new neighbor to the north. In July 1999 Jonathan Weiss had bought the three-bedroom home on the opposite side of Bliss's property. Initially the two enjoyed sharing a few beers, which came naturally as they had something in common: Both loved to water ski, Bliss favoring slalom skis and Weiss the newer sport of wakeboarding.
But when Bliss realized that 28-year-old Weiss was offering wakeboarding lessons from the property, he became alarmed. It wasn't just the swarms of visitors that bothered Bliss. After all, years ago it was common for him to host 30 or more friends for Sunday afternoons of water skiing. The real problem with Weiss's activities, he says, was shoreline erosion. The Miami Wake and Ski Club, which Weiss called his operation, kicked up an excessive amount of turbulence on the lake owing to the high speeds boats travel in order to pull wakeboarders. Turbulence exacerbates erosion.