Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Carmel on the Case: Land Battle Relief?
There is hope tonight for property owners locked in a land battle with Miami-Dade County. But the long fight has taken its toll. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is back on the case.
WSVN -- Seventy-three-year-old Ed Chapman has been in the fight of his life for years.
Ed Chapman: "Well, it puts you under a cloud and under pressure."
It's cost him his peace of mind, and his bank account.
Linda Chapman, Homeowner: "The emotional toll it's taken on him, he lives, breathes and eats this, and that's all he does."
The Chapmans have been consumed by a battle with Miami-Dade County over mulch dumped on their land after Hurricane Wilma.
Linda Chapman, Homeowner: "They've ruined us financially. I mean, we've planned and lived here for almost 30 years, and they've taken away our golden years."
A 7 News investigation first revealed the county had gone after the Chapmans and dozens of others who live in what's known as the eight-and-a-half-square-mile area that borders the Everglades.
Homeowners believed there was nothing wrong with the mulch brought in by private companies, because the county allowed it.
But later, owners were stunned when the county came back and claimed the mulch was contaminated and never should have been used because the area is a sensitive wetland.
This, despite the fact property in the area has been used as farmland for decades.
The county ordered the mulch removed, a hugely expensive process.
Patricia Baloyra, Chapman's Attorney: "Thousands and thousands of truckloads of this material was deposited in the eight-and-a-half-square-mile area, and the county knew about it and let it happen."
In a court hearing, there was testimony that the county allowed the mulch into the eight-and-a-half, while stopping other storm-related debris from being brought in.
Officer William Stiffler, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission: "They told us to target tires, roofing debris, trees."
And the county couldn't convince a judge that the property is a wetland.
Judge Barbara Areces, Circuit Court: "The county has not met its burden with regard to finding that the property is a wetland."
But the county continued to come after property owners with fines and threats.
Jose Fernandez, Business Owner: "The day that you think you are going to take my land, send a body bag, because you are going to get it over my dead body."
And now, for the first time in years, property owners are hopeful.
Ed Chapman: "Yeah, I am optimistic."
A Wetlands Advisory Task Force was appointed and has been investigating for the past eight months.
Man: "Here's the eight-and-a-half-square-mile area, down here."
The panel is trying to find out if the county acted fairly.
Carmel Cafiero, Investigative Reporter: "And without saying so, it appears the conclusion is, the county has not acted fairly. The task force is recommending the county allow the mulch to stay, and that the county reimburse property owners who have already paid to remove mulch."
Ed Chapman: "Till the day they come up and say, 'OK you're free,' that's when we'll know."
They hope to be able to stop fighting and start enjoying their land once again.
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