DERM Takes Lead as Predators & Thugs on 8.5 Square Mile Area
In the 1960’s Alice Pena’s father bought two separate 5 acre parcels of land in what is now known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area (8.5-SMA). At that time, the properties were classified as upland (high and dry ground) with an average elevation between 6 and 9 feet above mean high tide. The Pena’s property is now part of the 8.5-SMA that includes about 900 properties, 500 of which were home sites in what is principally farming area. Many of the farmers grew avocado trees including what was someone’s farm in the picture below.
During the next decade (1970s), the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) decided to close the locks on the canal about 10 blocks from the Pena property in order to get started with what was the beginning of the destruction of upland farm properties and homes in order to develop, expand and supposedly restore the Everglades. This caused heavy flooding of the 8.5-SMA properties during heavy rains to the point where there were live fish swimming on the Pena’s property on occasion.
In 1989, Congressman Dante Fascell passed Public Law 101-229 with bi-partisan support from the U.S. Congress to initiate the Everglades Restoration. The Law specifically states “the Secretary of the Army (Army Corps of Engineers) is authorized and directed to construct a flood protection system for that portion of presently developed land within the 8.5-SMA.” The law also authorized the fair market purchase of lands necessary to effect the goals of Everglades restoration.
Instead, on November 12th of 1998, the SFWMD sent letters to all 900 8.5-SMA property owners telling them they will have to sell their properties to the government at property values determined by government paid appraisers. Of course they were vastly undervalued since farmland that has been turned into swampland by SFWMD and the 8.5-SMA properties were also down zoned by Dade County to further devalue them; in the past you could build on 1.25 acres, 2.5 acres and 5.0 acre lots. Now, you must have 40 acres or more to build.
Imagine living the American dream. A place where prized equestrian horses, horse farms and equestrian shows exists, a place where you grow your own natural fruits and vegetables on your property, acres of play area for your kids to enjoy, far, far away from urban madness. Slowly each year your neighbors start disappearing as if the grim reaper took them away. They are broke, bankrupt and families destroyed from financial burdens or stress and you don’t know why. Then “you receive a letter in the mail sealed with an ultimatum symbolic of the old west saying you have five years to get off of your property or I’m coming and taking it and there is nothing you can do about it.”
After Alice organized the residents of the 8.5-SMA and formed “Las Palmas” the new entity name for the group/association of homeowners who lived in the 8.5-SMA and began the fight against the government entities trying to force out the residents, the courts ruled in favor of Las Palmas in year 2000. The settlement order directed the government to take 85 of the lowest lying properties in the area, pay the owners fair market value and all costs for relocation. After that ruling, Alice and the residents of Las Palmas thought they were going to live happily ever after in harmony and good neighbors to the Everglades restoration.
That turned out to be far from the truth. Despite the construction of the $400 million worth of flood protection infrastructure on the taxpayer’s dime including a protection canal/levy and pump stations in 2003; in 2005 the predators at DERM enter the picture. So far, DERM has cited 45 properties in Las Palmas with wetland violations. According to investigations by reporters from newspapers and environmental experts, there were no indications of wetlands in Las Palmas – not surprising since the remaining properties were at relatively high elevations. However, there have been 45 properties cited for wetland violations by DERM since 2005.
Predatory Tactics by DERM
DERM combined with other government entities and individuals has an undeniable and clearly predatory program to use all tactics and resources at their disposal including turning upland properties into wetlands in order to enable the government taking of properties for pennies on the dollar. The other common tactic to achieve the same end is to levy exorbitant fines ($15,000 or $25,000/day/violation penalties that were intended for environmental disasters like Exxon Valdes and the BP Oil spill) that exceed the value of the properties and also force sales to the government for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, they do not seem to let truth or integrity get in the way of their end goals and almost no one has the resources to fight them given the complicity and support of the County Attorney’s Office in their actions.
 Sentence reprinted from the South Dade Monitor, No. 31, Vol. 3, May 2011 page 1.