The Glades Trade

The state has a big job in trying to save the Everglades. Question is, Does it know what it's doing?

Twenty years ago Jahib Daher bought ten acres of mosquito-ridden, melaleuca-choked swamp in far western Broward County. The land around his still looks the same, but Daher has turned his property into a private Eden. The 53-year-old, his wife Dalva, and their three children share their land with five dogs and two horses. Country music drifts from the hand-built horse barn as Daher sits beneath the thatched roof of a cypress-log picnic shelter. Peanut, a small black, white, and brown dog, scampers over to him before shaking off a spray of water after a dip in the pond. Butterflies drift among the tall palms. "Years and years of sweat and money it has cost me to do this," he says. "I built this: my time and my money."

Daher's children -- 15-year-old Jammell, 11-year-old Brianna, and 6-year-old Jarret -- have never lived anywhere else and can't imagine leaving the peace and freedom they've found on the edge of the Everglades. Their friends in nearby Weston line up to visit the potholed gravel of SW 202nd Avenue for a weekend of horseback riding, fishing, and romping in the country. "This is paradise," Daher says.

But sooner or later, Daher's family will have to depart. In 1994 the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) designated their land as part of a water preserve area. It's now one piece of the $8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. By 2006 the district plans to begin construction of a dike surrounding Daher's property and many others in western Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties, then to flood the area with millions of gallons of water. "They've had us under the gun for five, six years," Daher says. "Not much we can do."

The district hasn't even made him an offer, Daher says. Not that any amount would be sufficient. "How can you put a price on what you've created? I can't ever go anyplace and find something like this. I won't ever be this happy. You really can't experience it until you see my little boy crying: "Daddy, they can't make me leave; I don't want to leave.'"

Daher and dozens of others have been awaiting offers from the district for years. Because of the impending inundation, they can't sell their land to anyone else for a decent price, despite the fact that vacant lots a quarter-mile to the east are selling for more than $300,000 per acre. Daher and two dozen of his neighbors sued the SFWMD late last year in an attempt to force the district either to move ahead or give up on the land purchases.

Records of the district's land buys so far make clear just how fast land values are rising in the targeted area of western Broward County. The district paid $11,472 per acre for a 26-acre parcel in 1996. By this year the cost had risen to $104,750 per acre.

The idea for a buffer zone between the Everglades and the mushrooming subdivisions to the east was floated by the National Audubon Society in the early 1990s. The group's members urged the state to buy a strip of about 66,000 acres along U.S. Highway 27 stretching from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade. In 1994 the district adopted the East Coast Buffer Zone plan and started notifying landowners in the project's path that they'd have to move.

New Timeswas unable to obtain records of land sales for the program in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. But a list of Broward County purchases begins with the 26-acre buy and continues with the purchases of 17 more properties in 1997, averaging $21,000 per acre.

In the late 1990s, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was gathering steam, and authorities incorporated the buffer-zone project into it. The area to be bought and flooded was revised downward to about 40,000 acres, says Erin Deady, environmental counsel for the Miami office of the Audubon Society.

"The effort is to create places to store water that is now being lost to the ocean," says Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida. "This water storage would, in effect, recharge the Biscayne aquifer," from which South Florida gets its drinking water. The buffer would also stop contaminants from seeping into the Everglades.

As the nature and scope of the project have changed, so has the type of land the district is trying to buy. Many of the purchases made early in the project had been empty and covered in tangled melaleuca. And many of the lots were held by absentee owners, who were willing to sell on easy terms because they weren't using the land. But now the empty, cheap land is largely gone. What the district has left to buy in Broward County is almost entirely in use by half a dozen homeowners, 15 tree nurseries, and the Weekley Brothers asphalt plant, rock mine, and rodeo headquarters. None of them wants to leave, Daher says.

Meanwhile, Daher and his neighbors charge, the district has been trying to keep owners from developing their land by pressuring local governments to deny zoning changes. As proof they cite a 1997 letter about the project from Samuel Poole, then SFWMD director, to Jack Osterholt, who was Broward County administrator at the time. "We continue to request your denial of proposals which would intensify land use," Poole wrote. "Working together as partners in this effort, we can develop the most economical and effective means of meeting these demands."

Yet the district doesn't even have a solid idea of what buying the rest of the land will cost -- development or no development. The land has never been accurately appraised, says Hansler Bealyer, a realty specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Until now the district has relied on a preliminary (and not very detailed) study the corps did in 1998. John Fumbero, general counsel for the district, admits the numbers are imperfect. "There were a great deal of assumptions that were made when those numbers came out. There're so many variables. It's just a project manager's rough guesstimate."

That "guesstimate" predicted an average per-acre price of $24,000, far below the cost of recent purchases. The district was supposed to issue its own, more detailed study this year, but it's already several months overdue, Bealyer says.

In the last six years, the district has spent $130 million buying land for the project. Starting this year the available money was supposed to jump to $200 million annually through 2006, courtesy of the Florida Forever Act, approved by the state legislature in 2000. But the district wound up with only $68 million for 2001, because state authorities didn't live up to their commitment. "This is a shell game, and we can't afford to lose, because if we keep hiding the ball, we're not going to get this project implemented," Deady fumes.

And only buying part of the land won't do much good. The preserve won't work unless it's a continuous line of water, not a patch here and there, Deady says. "This is where the rubber really meets the road. If they don't get the land, then Everglades restoration is not going to be successful."

Not a problem, Fumbero says: "I think Florida -- and the governor and the governing board of this agency -- has made its commitment pretty clear. We are going to carry out our end of the bargain on Everglades restoration. So I am confident the funds will be there."

But will there be enough money to buy the land before it's developed? Following a long silence on the phone line, Fumbero answers, "I don't think the issue is whether there will be enough money. All I can tell you is we've got a full plate, and we're going both barrels blasting with land acquisition."

The buffer-zone area in Broward County is at the top of the water district's list, Fumbero says. But he backs off when asked just when, if ever, the district will get around to making offers on the land. "To do all of the land acquisition within the next two or three years, we would have to hire an army of real-estate appraisers and negotiators."

The district must come to grips with that issue when its governing board meets September 12 and 13. And there is still a long way to go toward building the water preserve areas. The district has purchased only 50 percent of the needed land in Palm Beach County, 62 percent in Broward, and 26 percent in Dade, or about 41 percent overall.

Rusty Hayes, owner of Runway Growers and another plaintiff in the Broward landowners' suit, typifies the people the district will face in trying to buy land from here on out. The best and most valuable of his four tree nurseries is down the road from Daher's trailer on 202nd Avenue. There 8000 native trees stand in neat rows on ten acres. "My problem is, I can't replace this land. I mean, look at that," the silver-haired Hayes says, waving a beefy arm past the white cowboy hat on the dashboard of his pickup. He points at a patch of deep black soil, the legacy of thousands of years of plant decay in the Everglades. "I'll tell you, man, that stuff will grow hair on a rock." Even with comparable soil (not to be found elsewhere in Broward County), it would take him and other growers at least four years to grow new trees from saplings to salable size.

When it comes to estimating fair cost, Hayes is momentarily at a loss. There's so much to consider: the irreplaceably rich land; grading, watering, and preparing a new site; and the cost of moving 8000 trees or waiting for new ones to grow. Maybe $3 million for his ten acres alone, he says. "This is a family farm. I'd like to tell you this is some big, high-powered operation, but it's not. Losing this will really put a hurting on us."

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