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Land Grab

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.

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."

About two weeks after Peterson squawked, Neil Kalin, the South Broward district director, offered instead to take an easement for the pond. Peterson closes his eyes and shakes his head. "But that's all beside the point; the point is that they're not entitled to confiscate your property."

Kalin wouldn't verbally answer New Times' questions. His responses to faxed queries generally failed to address Peterson's complaints. But he did write, "For clarification, the District is not taking 'private property,'" adding that the body has routinely required easements in exchange for permits since 1989.

John Eastman, who lives down the street from Peterson, still grinds his teeth when he talks about a shed he built five years ago. He submitted plans to the drainage district and learned that it wanted an easement. "I'm supposed to give them 15 feet on the north and south sides of my property for drainage easements," he scoffs. "They already had a 40-foot easement on the back for a ditch." He says he asked Kalin: "Why do you need this now? You haven't needed it for the 27 years the house has been here." Eastman claims Kalin told him to either sign or forgo building. "I'd already gotten $10,000 of site work done," he says. "I had no choice but to sign it."

Eastman later complained to Broward Commissioner Lori Parrish, who looked into the matter. County Attorney Edward Dion informed her in a July 1999 memo that the district was an independent body and thus the County Commission couldn't reverse its decisions.

Unlike Eastman, Peterson refuses to give in to the district's demands. Sitting in his study, Peterson spreads out on his desk the contents of a manila folder -- copies of state statutes, correspondence, memos.

"I ain't a lawyer, I'm a mobile park manager," he growls. "But I can read. I have a 12th-grade education." He contests a clause in the district's charter that empowers the agency "to acquire, by purchase, gift, devise, condemnation, eminent domain, or otherwise" any property it needs. "That 'otherwise' is what they claim gives them the right," he says.

Not so fast, says a South Florida-based attorney who specializes in real estate law. "Basically, the Florida constitution guarantees that no private property shall be taken for a public purpose without payment of full compensation," says Bradley Gould, who is not involved in the case. In certain cases, a public entity can require an easement as part of the permitting process, he says, but only if the building project and the easement are related in some way. Gould is skeptical that a fence could disrupt drainage enough to require such an easement.

Peterson swears he'll take the matter to court before bending. From the stack of documents on his desk, he pulls out a pink, laminated violation notice recently nailed to his fence by a drainage district official. Do not remove until authorized, it counsels. "If I lose, I've got very little to lose," he declares. "But if they lose, every son of a bitch in this neighborhood that they've extorted property out of is going to be saying, 'Wait a minute!'"

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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