Life's a Ditch

In an area of open spaces, scampering marsh rabbits, and circling red-shouldered hawks along SW 168th Street, layers of debris-strewn soil fill roadside trenches. Plastic bottles, carpet remnants, and rubber tubing protrude from the brown earth. Michael Black, who lives nearby, points disgustedly at the mess. He's furious. He knows the county put the dirt here illegally at taxpayer expense. And he's convinced it's part of a plot to evict him. "Filling in the ditches is a conspiracy to get everyone out of the neighborhood," asserts Black.

Black is a leader in the fight over the 81/2 Square Mile Area, arguably the most debated and studied piece of real estate in Miami-Dade County. Environmentalists and government officials have labeled homeowners in the area west of Krome Avenue between SW 168th Street and Richmond Drive obstacles to the planned $7.5 billion Everglades restoration effort. Residents insist the government has trampled their rights. Now, on the eve of a possible solution, the imbroglio over the refuse-strewn ditches reveals the gulf that still separates the two sides.

The land was first settled in the 1960s. Though the nearby river of grass had often overflowed there in years past, developers subdivided the land, built roads, and sold lots for housing. Then they lobbied county, state, and federal authorities to build a flood protection system. In 1981 Dade County became so concerned about pollution and how to protect residents from flooding that it effectively halted development.

The final solution may be contained in a study completed last month by Thomas MacVicar, a prominent environmental consultant. MacVicar's state-funded report explores options for the area, ranging from building levees to government purchase of all eight and a half square miles. The South Florida Water Management District will review it, then recommend a plan to the Army Corps of Engineers this fall, says Samuel Poole, SFWMD executive director.

But residents of the 81/2 Square Mile Area likely will fight any plan that doesn't include complete flood protection. They accuse state and federal authorities of deliberately inundating their land to lower its value. Some like Black even argue the area has a drainage system. His evidence is a visible system of ditches and culverts -- including the infamous 168th Street trenches. "It's our best hope," insists Black.

So it was with horror that Black and others discovered on June 24 that dump trucks and bulldozers were systematically filling the ditches along 168th Street. At a community meeting months earlier, county regulators had agreed to examine the situation and report their findings, says resident Luis Silva, who attended the gathering. "We wanted them to investigate," Silva says. "They were supposed to get back with us."

After the meeting, a biologist from the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management concluded the area was a wetland and that the ditches should not be filled, attests Susan Markley, chief of the Natural Resource Division of DERM. Markley calls what followed "a misunderstanding."

The Miami-Dade Department of Public Works signed a $69,000 contract with H&R Paving to fill in the trenches along SW 168th Street from SW 197th to 219th avenues. The debris that Black and New Times spotted in the fill would be inappropriate, according to Modesto Nunez, assistant director of public works; only soil, not rocks or garbage, can be used for ditch-filling.

Further, the Corps, which regulates wetlands and provides flood control, contends the county did not pull the proper permits for the job. On June 25 Charles Schneppel, field chief of the Corps' Miami regulatory office, stopped the work and extracted a promise from the county to remove the fill. "There are wetland plants growing in these ditches. Fish and maybe even alligators use them," he states.

The county will likely negotiate a new contract with H&R to remove the fill, adds Nunez. "Removing it is a little harder than filling it in," he points out. Multiple calls to H&R Paving were not returned.