Land Grab

Doug Peterson paid a cool half million for his place. Now the government wants a chunk of it.

Southwest Ranches is the last municipal outpost in western Broward County before the landscape gives way to the Everglades. It's a sparsely settled gateway between the wetlands and the cramped suburbs; most of the 7500 people who live here relate more to the River of Grass than to the towers of glass. Indeed, the neighborhoods that make up the town -- Sunshine Ranches, Ivanhoe Estates, Green Meadows, Rolling Oaks, 198th Terrace, and Country Estates -- likely would have remained a loose confederation had the Florida legislature not required incorporation of all county lands. Little surprise, then, that in March 2000, these independent souls formed their own town rather than accept annexation.

Unlike the planned town of Weston to the north, the seven square miles of Southwest Ranches grew organically. Cul-de-sacs are few, and many homes have enough property to keep a horse, pig, or duck. Streetlights are the exception, not the norm.

Doug Peterson moved from Davie to Southwest Ranches a few months back, after buying a piece of this rural ambiance. A Broward native, Peterson bought a spacious home about a mile south of Griffin Road -- a cream-colored one-story perched upon a small knoll on two and a half acres. A narrow tarmac drive curves up to the front door, which is just yards from a steep embankment leading down to a drainage pond. A brilliant-white picket fence surrounds the property where he; his wife, Tamara; and their 18-month-old son, Dalton, live. Peterson erected the fence, which separates the house from the pond, just before moving here. Ever since, he's been feuding with a little-known agency called the South Broward Drainage District, which he claims has tried to "extort" part of his property. Neighbors have made similar claims.

Doug Peterson balked at officials' demand for easements in exchange for a permit to erect this fence
Colby Katz
Doug Peterson balked at officials' demand for easements in exchange for a permit to erect this fence

Just before sunset on a recent Thursday, the 37-year-old Peterson leaned against the fence and gazed over the pond. He has fine, short, blond hair and a wispy mustache. His roundish face is deeply tanned, and he speaks with a hint of Southern accent, his voice nasal and gravelly. Peterson, who manages three mobile home parks, is an avid hunter. Above the desk in his home office are the mounted heads of two deer he bagged on property he owns in Big Cypress National Preserve. A stuffed boar's head holds vigil on another wall. A chock-full gun case stands guard in one corner; more rifles hang above.

Primarily he built the fence for safety. Tamara was wary about Dalton falling into the pond from the moment she saw it. "She was having nightmares when we bought this place," Peterson explains. The embankment is about 30 feet from the front door and slopes sharply for 10 to 12 feet at some spots; fill from the pond was used to build up the house's foundation. "The neighbors say it's 35, 40 feet deep in the middle," he says, "but it only takes 12 inches to drown a kid."

He also needed the fence so he could move his two horses here from his Big Cypress property about 60 miles away. "I moved out here because I like the space, and I like to hear the roosters crow in the morning," he says. "All my life, I wanted to move out west, get two, three acres. The past few years, it became financially possible. I paid just over $500,000 for this place, and then these sons o' bitches show up, and they want 20 percent of my property."

The object of Peterson's invective is one of several agencies that requires permits for building projects in Southwest Ranches. The South Broward Drainage District, which also oversees portions of Davie, Hollywood, and Pembroke Pines, was formed by the legislature in 1927, and its charter was codified by that same body in 1998. As its name implies, the agency ensures that western Broward drains efficiently through a network of ditches and canals. Dozens of similar agencies operate in South Florida.

The drainage district is a small but powerful body. Overseen by an elected board of supervisors, it is empowered to levy taxes, impose assessments, and issue bonds. It also regulates building projects on private property.

Before erecting his fence, Peterson applied to the drainage district for a permit. He was shocked when that agency notified him that it would not be approved unless he granted a 35-foot easement on the south and west boundaries of his property. The district would pay him $10 and would have the right to use the strips to build a lift station, road, or canal. Peterson would continue to pay real estate taxes on the easements.

The requirement made no sense to Peterson because his parcel is landlocked. In addition, the district already had a 20-foot easement on the south and west property lines. Indeed, the neighboring Central Broward Drainage District, which covers a portion of Southwest Ranches, hasn't been so heavy-handed about obtaining easements. "If a permit request for a fence or patio, say, comes in, we do research the property, and if there is a need for an easement, we do have the authority to require an easement," explains Mike Crowley, its district manager. "But since the creation of Southwest Ranches, as of today, I have not required one easement."

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