Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Carmel on the Case: Wetlands
Some residents in an environmentally sensitive area of South Florida say they think Miami-Dade County is out to take their property. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is On the Case.
WSVN -- It's called the 8.5 Square Mile Area, and it borders the Everglades in Western Miami-Dade County. You'll find homes and nurseries and farms here, and you'll also find the seeds of despair.
Ed Chapman: "Well, we bought this figuring we'd die here."
Ed and Linda Chapman are afraid they are going to lose their home.
Ed Chapman: "We are now broke. We are literally broke."
They're in a court fight over adding fill to their property. DERM, Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management, cited the Chapmans and dozens of their neighbors for filling in wetlands, a designation that's news to the property owners.
Ed Chapman: "We're not a wetlands. Sweetwater is more of a wetlands than we are. They have more standing water and less drainage there than we have here."
Ed says he accepted free mulch after hurricane Wilma, and now the county wants it removed.
Ed Chapman: "It'll cost you $2,000 a load. It's gonna be well over $100,000, and they said you're gonna lose that property, you can't afford to do this."
When you think of a wetland, scenes from the Everglades come to mind, but to be classified a wetland, experts have to check the amount of water and the kind of soil and plants.
Aida Fernandez: "My property has been in agricultural use since 1968."
Aida and Jose Fernandez say they are facing financial ruin after DERM shut down their nursery based on charges they cleared and filled a wetland.
Jose Fernandez: "We're scared. We're very scared that we're going to lose our property and everybody here is going to lose their property."
They say, no one ever told them the property is a wetland. They say, their deed doesn't show it, and they received no notice from the county until they got hit with a cease and desist order.
Aida: "No one. We've requested and I've requested a determination. There's no letter. There's no determination."
I looked through each family's files at DERM's office and could find no notice to the owners that the properties are wetlands before the county took action against them.
Carlos Espinosa, DERM director: "Our staff determines that this is a wetland, and then they prepare a document that tells the property owner, you know, you're in a wetland, you did certain things."
DERM's director says the property owners should have known they're in a wetland.
Carlos Espinosa: "The fact that that area has been a wetlands has been documented throughout all the years, and that is documented in a number of documents zoning overlays. I mean a number of processes."
Byron Landrum dug this pond to entertain his bride of 60 years, Daisy. She suffers from Alzheimer's.
Byron Landrum: "She still enjoys coming out here and being in the atmosphere on the lake and everything."
He says he's paid thousands in fines to the county for the shallow lake because DERM says he dug in a wetland, and he says DERM wants him to get rid of the palm trees he has farmed for years.
Byron Landrum: "They want us to push them out with a bulldozer and take all the land that surrounds them back down to the rock."
This, despite the fact he has a letter from the corps of engineers that shows, in 1981 it determined his property cannot be classified as a wetland.
Byron Landrum: "I keep asking myself over the last year and a half, how am I gonna do this?"
Carmel Cafiero: "DERM says it doesn't want to take anybody's property away, but with cease and desist orders in effect and legal bills skyrocketing, the families say they find it hard to trust Miami-Dade County."
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