Floridians Battle Bureaucrats to Save Their Homes, Property

Published November 1, 2002

Ten years ago, Hurricane Andrew blasted the coast of Southeast Florida with the force of a Level Five hurricane, only one of three of that magnitude to hit the United States during the twentieth century. Residents of Homestead took the brunt of Andrew, which had sustained winds in excess of 145 miles an hour. Their homes were destroyed and their lives were devastated.

They fought back and they rebuilt.

Now, those same residents are once again threatened with the potential loss of their homes, and they are fighting back once more. Only this time their enemy is not nature: It is their own government.

On August 25, hundreds of vocal South Florida residents gathered to express their anger, disappointment, and distrust of government officials at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines. The event, part of “The Sawgrass Rebellion” sweeping Florida, was sponsored by The 15,000 Coalition, Inc., the Everglades Protection Society, the Dade County Farm Bureau, and the 8.5 Square Mile Area Legal Defense Fund.

This regional event was a prelude to a property rights rally in Naples, Florida on October 17 and 18 and in Homestead on October 19. Thousands journeyed to Florida from all across the country to take part in The Sawgrass Rebellion, which now boasts participation by more than 700 groups. The movement reflects growing opposition to the unwarranted taking of private property by local, state, and federal government agencies. The Sawgrass Rebellion is an umbrella organization founded to protect the property rights of South Florida residents through legislation, litigation, and public education.

Alamogordo, New Mexico’s Paragon Foundation sent Jay Walley to the August 25 event in Homestead. Walley introduced leaders and representatives of various local groups involved in the Rebellion to an enthusiastic crowd. Parents came with children and grandparents. Picnic lunches were spread out on blankets as families prepared to spend the afternoon learning and listening. Local area activist and well-known writer Alice Pena, Jan Michael Jacobson of the Everglades Institute, and Frank Denninger of the Everglades Protection Society joined other speakers, as Suzette de Armas provided Spanish and English translations.

Gerardo C. Morales, president of The 15,000 Coalition, told the crowd he and his family were reliving the horrors of 40 years ago. “We lost our property then to Castro and the Cuban government,” said the Golden Gate Estates landowner. “I can understand how this might happen in a communist country, but not here, not in the United States.”

When Dave Friedrichs of the Dade County Farm Bureau addressed the landowners, he said he was present at the rally to show everyone The Sawgrass Rebellion was alive and kicking. He said the battle must be for all farmers, ranchers, landowners, and recreational sportsmen. “I have seen farmers lose their land to flooding and drought and financial devastation,” said Friedrichs. “But I will not stand by and see anyone lose their land due to some bureaucrat.” When he finished his message, Friedrichs left the stage and shook hands with each person in the crowd to solidify his pledge to each landowner that he would fight to the end of the battle with them.

G.B. Oliver, executive director of Paragon, flew in from New Mexico the night before to take part in the rally and explain his organization’s mission. “Some 40 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers took approximately 92,000 acres of ranch land from my grandfather,” shouted Oliver. “I am here to fight the battle with you, to see that we stop the Corps from doing the same thing to the good people of Florida.”

Pena said the meeting was a “baby step” in a long fight that would be revisited at the October rallies.

“We have an uphill battle, but we are going to win this fight,” said Pena. “We must win this fight if we are going to keep our homes and our land. We need the support of landowners everywhere. We need thousands to make the journey to Naples and Homestead.”

Danny E. Meek is an attorney with Hollingsworth, Meek, Miller and Minglin in Indianapolis, Indiana.