This Land Is My Land

Clif Lirette sits in his house trailer a long way from ordinary 21st-century life and watches his dogs, Butch and Rock 'n' Roll, travel quickly past his open door toward the highway. Lirette lurches to his feet and moves to the door, an old man whose systemwide physical infirmities veil his resolve, which appears unflinching.

Out of his toothless mouth tumbles an order that sounds like this: Whoahtheyahyouallholtitch. Translation: "Whoa there, you all hold it."

The dogs do.

But Palm Beach County officials don't. Since August 1997, code-enforcement officers have pressured the bearded, 105-pound Lirette to get his tiny ass off the land he bought eight years ago for $45,000. Either he gets out, they say, or he has to make some radical changes in the way he lives -- in isolation, without electricity or plumbing, on a weedy plot bordering U.S. Highway 27, 100 yards north of the Broward County line.

The victim of five strokes and a boyhood bout with polio, Lirette is a frail man with a strong attitude. He says calmly, "I ain't much to spit on, but I ain't leavin' here, neither. If you own land, I don't see why you can't live on it."

County officials began fining Lirette a steady $100 a day in December 1998, after giving him about 16 months to resolve code violations. They had cited him for "open storage of inoperative vehicles, appliances, vehicles/auto parts, dilapidated mobile homes, recreational vehicles, trash and debris, illegal use of extension cords, generator, and living in and storing campers and/or recreational vehicles. All of these is [sic] not permitted." He says some of that wasn't his fault. People dumped a couple trailers on the site.

Lirette hasn't paid a dime of the fines. Now a Philadelphia-based collection agency has the bill, referred by Palm Beach County's Office of Financial Management and Budget, which took the handoff from the Office of Code Enforcement.

The collectors say Lirette's fine has grown to about $60,000 and they've filed a lien on the property. The 68-year-old Louisiana native, whose solvency amounts to a $700 monthly social security check, figures he's in trouble. When his telephone rings and a woman from Philadelphia gets him on the line, Lirette listens for a minute, then just hangs up. "I don't have anything to say to 'em," he mumbles. "Besides, they can't understand me on the phone." The old Winchester .22-caliber rifle he keeps beside the couch to fend off intruders isn't going to do him much good against the assured march of local government and professional bill collectors, and he knows it.

Inside Lirette's trailer a small black-and-white television flickers, tuned to a midday game show. Outside the trailer sits Lirette's 1992 Ford station wagon, the hood open. A long cord runs from the car's battery up the shaky steps and into Lirette's living room, where it powers the television.

Lirette also wires a generator to various machines and lives without indoor plumbing. When the code-enforcement officers began to question him three years ago, the place looked pretty much the same as it does now. Code officers were nonplussed, not just at the conditions but at Lirette's willingness to ignore the zoning, which is for agricultural, not commercial, purposes.

Lirette, they discovered, was also a rugged entrepreneur who had started a number of businesses on his property. When he complained to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles about harassment, his letter was returned to the county's code office. Officials promptly ordered him to close his ventures, which had included a roadside hamburger stand, a lawn-maintenance service, and a nursery. Lirette also sold three trailers off his property for friends who parked them there, taking a commission. Code officers feared he'd turn the site into a used-trailer lot.

"He's so far south toward the Broward County line that we didn't even know about him until somebody complained once," says Terry Verner, director of code enforcement. "Now the problem is he just wants to be left alone out there, but we have to enforce the laws."

Although Lirette is legally entitled to live on land zoned for agricultural use, Verner worries that the old man could start a fire with the generator and gas-powered cooking apparatus he uses or allow the site to become a junkyard disguised as commercial property. "That's why these codes exist," says Verner, "for safety and for aesthetics. But I like him, I've always liked him. I feel sorry for him."

Sorry or not, the only legal enterprise for Lirette is to sell fresh produce. The county approved a 150-foot space for a produce stand, but that won't work, says Lirette. He can get watermelons, but he can't lift them anymore, he explains, and he doesn't have a good source for other produce.

So Lirette has resolved to ignore the official directives. He has even resisted government the newfangled way -- with pro bono lawyers, not the .22. But their calls on his behalf haven't accomplished much. One of those, Fort Lauderdale attorney Stuart Slutsky, helped Lirette a couple years ago. "He's doing no harm where he is, he's getting by on his own, so why bother him?" asks Slutsky. "This is a proud man. He takes no welfare. He's in the middle of nowhere, he's happy -- so what's going on?"

Lirette's question exactly. And Lirette's answer, denied by Verner, is that the county wants to take his land so it can ultimately sell it or rent it for good money to a telephone company or to Florida Power & Light (FPL).

No firm evidence supports this notion, but Lirette says phone company representatives started talking to him a few years ago about renting 2500 square feet for a tower, at $25,000 per year. Then they put the tower up the road "on a rich guy's property," says Lirette, where it now sits, 13 miles north of him. More recently, a private contractor for FPL sought to rent parking space for his trucks on Lirette's plot, but the county denied him permission, killing a chance for extra income.

The money would have helped Lirette pay the $1600 required to haul off two abandoned trailers.

Lirette's land, not quite three-quarters of an acre, amounts to a clearing cut from the ten-foot-high circle of dense flora that surrounds him on three sides. On the fourth lies U.S. Highway 27, with its stream of truckers and travelers. Two FPL towers loom nearby like war-of-the-worlds giants, visible from his trailer. A procession of massive telephone poles march past his property into the Everglades, carrying Southeast Florida's communications to the rest of the North American continent.

The logic of Lirette's argument -- that he isn't bothering anybody -- lies in his isolation. The nearest store is 14 miles south, in a Weston suburb. Lirette's address, for government purposes, is almost 20 miles north, in South Bay. Lirette says he's reluctant to surrender his home because "it reminds me of when I was a boy." He grew up without electricity or plumbing but with insects, snakes, raccoons, possums, deer, even bobcats -- all animals he has spotted here. He calls his birthplace, on a "camp boat" in a bayou 90 miles south of New Orleans, "the end of the world." The description is affectionate. His father trapped muskrats and worked as a carpenter, living hand to mouth. Lirette has followed that simple trail, without apology.

A tugboat pilot, Lirette was sent from Louisiana to Port Everglades in the mid-1970s, and he decided to stay. But the call of wild places drew him out of town and into a fish camp in the Everglades about 12 miles south of his current location. There, on $50 a week, Lirette lived for 11 years, before buying his property.

For better or worse, Lirette is piloting his life on the same course as always. And as ever, he's working on the money problem. Two 50-pound bags labeled "Virgin Handpicked Peanuts" and a 50-pound sack of Morton salt pellets sit in the tiny cook shack next to his trailer. Lirette has begun selling boiled peanuts to passersby. On a Tuesday last week he raked in $16, at $2 a cup. "I can make 200 cups off 50 pounds of peanuts," he explains patiently.

If the county will let him. Confronted with the notion that government might question the selling of boiled peanuts without a permit, Lirette shows some attitude. "I own the damn ground, all I want to do is make a decent living. What're they going to do?"

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Roger Williams