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Miccosukee Suit On River Of Grass

By Cyril T. Zaneski

EVERGLADES - It appeared that South Florida water managers had finally ended a quarter century of debate over development in the East Everglades last November by voting unanimously to buy Miami-Dade's 8 1/2 Square Mile Area.

But a recent lawsuit and sweeping changes in leadership at the South Florida Water Management District have raised questions about prospects for the planned $115 million buyout that is being fiercely contested by property owners in the rural outpost.

The Miccosukee Tribe and two residents of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area sued the district and the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in February, accusing the agencies of violating the state open meetings law. No trial date has been set.

At issue: Did the team of bureaucrats who drew up recommendations for the buyout break the law by failing to advertise their meetings? The state's Government in the Sunshine law requires advisory panels to give advance public notice of their meetings.

"This group of bureaucrats was trying to do in private what three commissions appointed by governors failed to in their public deliberations: Buy land and houses from unwilling sellers in the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area," said Dexter Lehtinen, the Miccosukees' general counsel. "Right now, I don't see how we lose."

Motion filed with Miccosukees

Last week, the First Amendment Foundation - whose members include 200 Florida newspapers, media lawyers and private citizens advocating the public's right to access to government proceedings - filed a motion to join the suit on the side of the tribe. The Herald is a member of the foundation.

In their defense, the government agencies contend that the team that reviewed the proposed buyout was not an advisory panel but rather a technical group on a fact-finding mission. The group was evaluating an engineering study of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area and not making recommendations of their own. Fact-finding groups are exempt from public notice requirements of the Sunshine Law, they say.

Though members of the team used the word "recommendation" in their notes to each other, water district officials say that word was used casually, not officially.

"The district's posture is: We're not backing off on anything," said Michael Collins, the new chairman of the water district's governing board. "We're holding the course until we hear from the judge."

Collins was not on the nine-member district governing board that voted unanimously in front of about 200 jeering property owners on Nov. 12 to acquire the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Collins and five other board members in March.

The board's first move was to fire Executive Director Sam Poole. Among the reasons that Collins cited for Poole's dismissal was his handling of the 8 1/2 Square Mile issue.

``I personally question the legality and legitimacy of the process that led to that decision, Collins said in an interview. ``Why in the world would Sam Poole have decided to do things this way?

Conservationist reputation

Collins is a fishing guide from Islamorada with a reputation as a strong conservationist. Before his appointment to the water board, he was an advocate of buying the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area as a way of getting badly needed fresh water to Florida Bay.

But as chairman of the water board, Collins takes a different position: ``I need to keep an open mind on this now.

Last month, Collins appointed a top official in the water district to review legal and financial matters affecting the 8 1/2 Square Mile issue. Among the questions is whether the district has enough money to pay its share of the price of the buyout.

The U.S. Department of Interior has agreed to pay half the total purchase price; Miami-Dade is being asked to contribute $20 million, and the district would pay the balance. The County Commission has set an April 13 hearing on the issue.

``I'm doing a little contingency planning, Collins said. ``I want to know - if this thing has to come back to the board - what's going to be the best thing for the natural system.

Whatever happens has huge implications for the planned restoration of the Everglades. The 8 1/2 Square Mile Area is a linchpin for efforts to restore a natural flow of water to northeast Shark Slough - the primary source of water to Everglades National Park.

Reviving the parched slough is considered critical to efforts to restore populations of wildlife in the southern Everglades and provide a reliable source of clean, fresh water to Florida Bay.

But to let water flow in the slough, federal and state agencies have to commit to a strategy of how to deal with the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area. While the area itself is not in the slough, it is on the wrong side of the region's flood control system. So as water rises in the slough, it will also periodically flood roads and lots in the area.

Dozens of holdings

There are about 1,600 individual properties in the area. Most of the private property is vacant. But there are dozens of small farms, orchards and ranches and about 350 residences. Many of those residences are substantial, and a few have been occupied for as many as three decades.

Fearing that opposition of residents of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area would stall the buyout for another decade or longer, the Miccosukees joined the fight on their behalf. The tribe wants the issue resolved quickly as part of an effort to prevent flooding on its own properties north of Tamiami Trail.

The tribe is pushing for construction of a $39 million canal and levee designed by the Army Corps of Engineers that would assure that flooding does not worsen as water levels rise in the slough.

The problem is that the Department of Interior, which would have to pick up the tab, has rejected that option. The department worries that the canal and levee would further drain Everglades National Park.

Conservation groups are united in favor of a buyout. So are Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack, who wrote a joint letter to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas in February saying that a full buyout is in the best interest of county taxpayers and the Everglades.

But supporters of the buyout plan are now nervous about what will happen in court and concerned about the district backing out of the deal. If the agencies lose the suit, it's likely that the district's new governing board would have to take another vote on the plan.

Conservation activists are concerned about how that might go with new leadership at the water district.

``We have not been reassured by anything we've seen happening at the district so far, said Ron Tipton of the World Wildlife Fund.

- Cy Zaneski is a Miami Herald staff writer. This article is reprinted by permission of the Miami Herald

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