The Last Frontier

This is how deep in the boonies Madeleine Fortin lives: A round-trip expedition to the nearest Publix takes more than 40 minutes in driving time alone. To get to her house, you have to travel beyond the farthest reaches of West Kendall, out past the newest insta-housing developments that seem to spring up weekly from that soggy terrain. To trek to Fortin's house is to learn that Krome Avenue isn't, in fact, the western boundary of known civilization in Dade County.

From Krome you still have a long way to go; two miles west along SW 168th Street, past large tracts of commercial farmland and groves, then through a gap in the earthen levee that runs all the way from Broward and was built in the 1950s to prevent Dade from flooding -- at least the part of Dade that lies east of the levee.

Another couple of miles west of the levee, a handmade wooden street sign painted with the number 218 indicates the next turn. That's SW 218th Avenue, a treacherously potholed dirt road a half-mile or so long, plunging through brush, past small groves and farms and a few modest ranch-style homes, before dead-ending at Fortin's house, a three-bedroom cement-block structure with a porch and plenty of Mexican tile and a working fireplace and cool breezes that circulate through the rooms.

"I moved out here because I wanted to live where it was nice and quiet, and I didn't want to be surrounded by a lot of people, and where I could have a big yard to plant vegetables," says Fortin, an earnest woman who works part-time as a registered nurse. "I just feel more at home out here. Since I moved here in September, I've met more people than in the three years I lived in Kendall." A wrought-iron spiral staircase on one side of the house leads to a gently sloping roof. "Pretty great, huh?" Fortin says with the slight drawl she picked up while living in Alabama. She gestures broadly toward the expanse of Everglades that rolls out from her property to the north and west, rattles off the names of the birds she has spotted near her land: belted kingfisher, snowy egret, white ibis, great blue heron, night heron, meadowlark, woodpecker, oriole, finch.

Fortin lives in a region known as the 812 Square Mile Area, the only residential "community" in Dade that sits west of the earthen levee. Bounded on the north and south by SW 104th and SW 168th streets, on the west by SW 221st Avenue, on the east by the levee, it's a sparsely populated territory of chassis-bending dirt roads, inhabited by iconoclasts who have fled the congestion and urban ills of city life in the pioneering spirit of self-determination.

But if solitude and independence is what they were after, it isn't what they're getting: The 812 Square Mile Area has been a topic of public debate for nearly twenty years. It has also suffered almost total governmental neglect, its far-flung location and a laissez-faire attitude on the part of authorities having resulted in rampant illegal dumping (often by outsiders) and the seemingly unfettered propagation of unpermitted houses and illegal businesses and industries. While the irregularly shaped parcel of land lies within the borders of Dade County, it is outside Metro-Dade's urban-development boundary, which means few services such as storm-water drainage and garbage collection are available to residents. No one is even certain of the region's population: Estimates range from the 1990 census figure of 640 to well over 1200.

Of the most public concern is the fact that the area abuts the newly extended eastern boundary of Everglades National Park. Scientists agree that to save the dying Everglades -- and, by extension, Florida Bay -- the River of Grass must be replenished. In addition to sending more fresh water directly into the Everglades, a planned restoration program also requires reflooding parts of the East Everglades that previously had been drained for agricultural use. While officials have targeted for acquisition huge tracts of privately owned Southwest Dade farmland, they have yet to decide what should be done about the 812 Square Mile Area.

This past July, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed a group of local, state, and federal officials to make that decision. Congress has authorized the construction of a system of drainage canals and levees to offset water-level increases in the 812 Square Mile Area brought on by the future restoking of Everglades National Park. However, that so-called "flood-mitigation" system, estimated to cost about $31 million, would only counteract the anticipated additional water flow to an area whose residents constantly contend with flooding as it is. (During Tropical Storm Gordon, for instance, the National Guard was called in to ferry children to school.) Possibilities now being considered by the governor's committee range from going ahead with the $31 million mitigation program to constructing a limited flood-control system to buying all the land via eminent domain (the right of the government to appropriate private property for public use).  

While the committee appears poised to recommend a compromise that would address the ongoing flooding problem while allowing the majority of residents to remain in their homes, many inhabitants demand nothing less than full flood protection for the entire area. They complain that they have listened to false promises of flood control and unrealized buyout plans for years, leaving them unsure whether they should invest in improvements to their properties or prepare to abandon them. The neighborhood seethes with mistrust of authority and with the sentiment that individual rights are being sacrificed to scientifically unsound environmentalism. Conspiracy theories about back-room deals between government leaders and big real estate interests are common community gossip.

"You've read the Constitution of the United States?" blurts Rafael Herrera, a Metro-Dade corrections officer who is president of the Redland Glades Community Association, the area's homeowners' group. "They're violating everything! All our constitutional rights!"

"I'm prepared to burn my house down," declares fellow resident Manny Duarte, a Santero and former fashion model who moved to the area five years ago. "I worked hard for it; I'd rather burn it than be made to sell it."

Estus Whitfield, Governor Chiles's representative on the 812 Square Mile Area Study Committee, says he is sympathetic to the "hurt" the residents are feeling. And, he stresses, the committee is attempting to do what's best for the neighborhood. "We know these are people who have a problem -- flooding. And what government is about is to help people with their problems. I'm trying to create peace," he insists.

Any chance for peace was probably lost long ago, yet another casualty of the refusal -- on the part of citizens and government alike -- to limit growth on Dade's environmentally fragile frontier.

Like many other area residents, Bonni and Fred Bensch built their house with their own hands. The spacious four-bedroom home sits on a four-acre lot, surrounded by oak, lime, and avocado trees. "I wanted to get my sons away from the drugs, crime, and all," explains Bonni Bensch, a thin, high-strung physical therapist. "I just wanted to raise them in the country." So her three boys, now grown, spent their youth outdoors, raising quail and rabbits, and camping.

Historically, the tract now known as the 812 Square Mile Area was a sawgrass prairie that provided habitat for wading birds and deer, according to Bob Johnson, chief hydrologist for Everglades National Park. Underwater for several weeks to a few months per year, the region was located between a wide fork in the River of Grass: eastern Shark River Slough -- the major waterway in the central Glades -- and Taylor Slough, which carries water into the southern reaches of the peninsula and Florida Bay.

Farmers first cultivated the land in the 1950s, courtesy of the massive system of canals and levees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed to dry out coastal terrain throughout central and southern Florida. By the time the Bensches arrived in 1973, East Everglades land speculation had begun in earnest.

Those who wanted to escape the growing metropolis of Miami willingly gave up the amenities of urban life -- paved roads, garbage collection, door-to-door postal delivery, water and sewer lines, and storm-water drainage. And despite the growing population, Dade officials never planned to provide those services, says Robert Usherson, chief of the Metropolitan Planning Division of the Metro-Dade Planning Department.

During the Seventies, however, county authorities began to worry about the public-safety ramifications of development in the flood-prone area. At the same time, Usherson says, they foresaw that a growing population would become increasingly demanding of the government to provide flood protection. In 1981, after years of studies, Metro-Dade commissioners approved a controversial ordinance that specifically limited residential densities in the area to one residence per forty acres, down from the previously permitted one house per five acres. In response, 27 families, including the Bensches, filed a federal lawsuit accusing state and local officials of illegally reducing the value of their land.

While the ordinance, which has remained in effect while the suit is pending, has inhibited legal development, it hasn't stopped the illegal variety. The 1990 census indicates that the area has a population of 640, but residents say their own head count has turned up about 700 families. Throughout the 812 Square Mile Area, barns and sheds have sprouted additions and satellite dishes. At least two illegal bars that double as quasi-whorehouses are well-known in the neighborhood, as are a number of unauthorized car-repair garages. Residents report other illegal businesses, including pig farming and stolen-car chop shops.  

In an initial survey that county authorities say will be followed by increased enforcement, officials tallied 102 house trailers -- of which only one was legal. They also counted 357 buildings that appeared to be residences, but only 135 were found to have homestead exemptions. (A homestead exemption is a tax break for a primary abode; presumably a homeowner would seek one if he lived in a legally sanctioned residence.)

Blame Dade's sorrowfully flimsy code-enforcement apparatus for the proliferation of illegal construction. Ronald Szep, assistant director of Metro's Building and Zoning department, says his officers respond only to complaints. "We try not to single out anyone on a proactive basis," Szep explains, adding that the county's interdepartmental sweep of the 812 Square Mile Area was prompted by recent scrutiny by the governor's committee.

Some violations, though, haven't remained hidden in the prodigious underbrush. One of the longest-running code-enforcement cases, and one that embodies the zeal and independent spirit of the 812 Square Mile Area's population, involves Isabel Morales. Along with her husband Jesus, she bought a two-and-a-half-acre parcel on SW 209th Avenue in 1985, with the intention of planting a grove of mango and mamey trees. "My husband is a farmer from Cuba, that's all he's done his whole life," says Morales, who was born in Havana and grew up in New York.

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."

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.

The meeting began smoothly, as Estus Whitfield introduced the committee members and cordially welcomed the residents in his pleasant North Florida drawl. He then brought forward DERM code-enforcement officer Robert Karafel, who launched into an overview of the area, ticking off statistics regarding the total assessed value of the land and the number of illegal structures on it. The audience listened attentively as a county employee translated into Spanish.

But the committee members couldn't possibly have believed the peace would last. Less than an hour into the proceedings, as Karafel was patiently answering a resident's question about his data, a heavyset bearded man barked, "Do you suppose that if you hadn't denied them the legal right to build on their land in 1981, don't you suppose there would be a bigger tax base?"

Whoops and applause resounded throughout the room.
Karafel forced a smile as Whitfield called for calm. "Hold on, hold on!" his voice rose above the grumbling. "You're going to have to ask these sorts of questions at a later date." But the audience had already had enough; the remainder of Karafel's discourse and the ensuing presentations by other officials were marked by occasional bursts of bilingual heckling and derisive laughter.

The dam of discontent burst about an hour later, during an explanation of the flow-way/buffer alternative. Madeleine Fortin raised her hand and asked the committee why the 812 Square Mile Area had to sacrifice at least ten percent of its land for the project. Why couldn't Everglades National Park land be used, she asked?

The question was met by committee members with blank stares and several seconds of uneasy silence. Finally Whitfield turned to another part of the audience and inquired pointedly, "Was there another question over here?"

The room erupted. "This is nothing but a PR meeting! That's all you do: a PR meeting!" yelled one man wearing a blue windbreaker. "It's all bullshit," growled homeowners' association president Rafael Herrera, clutching a stack of documents and heading for the door. "Let's move out," he commanded in the voice of a general exhorting his troops. He and the man in the windbreaker stormed away, followed by a mass of others. The committee members sat silently.  

A woman stood and said she'd been living on 217th Avenue for fifteen years, had raised her family there, built and rebuilt her home. During that time, she noted, she'd never experienced flooding that compared to the current conditions. "The water has been kept there because the canals to the south of there have been shut!" she hollered, eliciting cries of agreement from others.

"Ma'am!" Whitfield interjected. "We can't deal with these kinds of specific questions right now."

"Well," the woman shot back, "this is my home!"
The last hour was devoted to public comment no less rancorous, as resident after resident took a seat before a microphone only feet away from the committee members at the front of the room and defiantly denounced the government. "We sit here and can't help but feel like Bugs Bunny," Jill Hoog said when her turn came. "We've been offered the carrot of flood control before, but it's always turned into mitigation. What faith in government should we have that it will be addressed? Either buy us out or get us flood protection."

"I built my house," stated Lorraine Valladares, a math and computer-sciences teacher who has lived in the 812 Square Mile Area for fourteen years. "This is the only house my husband, who is a Cuban, has. He had one in Cuba, but they took that. So are you going to take this one?"

"There's no way anybody can buy me out," vowed long-time resident Bertha Valdez. "This is my home. I have no other choice. So maybe you'll see me in jail."

Julia Yapell, who owns a horse ranch, declared her intention to pay taxes into a special escrow account until the issue is resolved. "You either buy us out so we can go live a normal life somewhere else, or we're going to take government into our own hands," she warned. "We're going to fill [our properties] as much as we like, continue to fix our roads, and maybe we'll just all get together and not pay our taxes."

The Water Management District's Sam Poole tried to be conciliatory. "I think all of us can understand the situation you've been in," he told the hundred or so residents who stuck around till the end. "You deserve an answer as soon as possible."

But outside the meeting room, the citizens were anything but mollified. "Every one of them will have to pay one day," Rafael Herrera snarled. "You ask what the government does? They're a bunch of liars!"

"Have you ever seen such a farce in your whole life?" added Bonni Bensch, tossing a wad of gum around in her mouth. "They won't answer one question asked. They don't want to commit to anything, because it was on the record."

Later, after the last angry stragglers had gone home, Poole expressed sympathy for the residents' frustrations. "These people have been bounced around," noted Poole, who was a Dade County planner in the late Seventies. "They have no faith in the government. Many of them were clearly sold property that the land sellers told them had flood protection. It was not a representation by any government officials," he added.

"I think there is a sense that government was supposed to be looking out for them. But there is only so much government can do," Poole went on. "The trouble is, hindsight is always much clearer. At the time Everglades National Park was established [in 1947], this area was considered for acquisition. But for reasons I don't understand, it was excluded from the park. Whether or not the county commission should have anticipated the amount of growth in this area is a tough one to answer. Most of the development occurred during the Seventies, which was a very dry period, and I don't think [the county] paid a lot of attention to the area. Problem is, we're now in a period of wet years. The neglect of the area -- the benign neglect -- has turned out to be a severe problem."

But again, Poole was quick to point out that authorities aren't to blame for the current flooding conditions. "Their situation occurs because they live west of the flood-protection levee," he asserted. "It has nothing to do with ecosystem restoration." In studying the flow-way/buffer alternative, he added, the committee is going beyond any steps that have been taken previously, and beyond what is legally required. Clearly, he repeated, government is not the enemy.

But from the Water Management District director's weary expression, it was equally clear he knew he would not be able to convince the residents of this.

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