Homesteader full of regret as house faces demolition

By Jeremy Cox (Contact)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

U.S.Navy SEAL (Ret)

Selling his land to the government turned Jesse Hardy into a millionaire and an insomniac.

In January, Hardy left his 160-acre homestead in Southern Golden Gate Estates, which he reluctantly had sold the previous April for $4.95 million. Today, he still swears — often in both senses of the word — that the government stole his rustic lifestyle from him.

“It hurts me,” the 70-year-old Navy veteran said. “I built (the house) with my own hands. I’ll never be able to get it back again. They lied to me. They had the deck stacked against me.”

The final blow is scheduled for Tuesday. That’s when a state contractor will begin razing Hardy’s beloved home — the one behind the gate on Naomi Way, the dirt road he named after his mother.

The demolition is part of a $1.4 million effort to get rid of the remaining houses, septic tanks, chicken coops, sheds and trash in the 55,000-acre subdivision. Everything must go to make way for an environmental restoration project that’s a key component of saving the Everglades.

The South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want to get water flowing the way it used to — in a broad trickle toward the Gulf of Mexico. To do so, water managers plan to fill in canals, tear out 227 miles of roads and install three pump stations to get water moving across the land.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved a nationwide water bill that included $362 million for Southern Golden Gate Estates, now known as Picayune Strand State Forest. The bill is expected to move to a conference committee, where lawmakers will iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.

The bill’s backers say the legislation is at least three years overdue. Congress typically passes a Water Resources Development Act every two years but hasn’t done so since 2000, the year the $10.8 billion Everglades restoration project was approved.

The restoration work in Southern Golden Gate Estates will move forward even if the bill dies. The project is included in a $1.5 billion plan by Florida officials to complete eight restoration projects by 2011.

From Hardy’s battle-hardened perspective, the project is a big waste of time.

His property was strewn with mining pits, which he had hoped to turn into fish farms. And it was 13 feet above sea level — an unimpressive height anywhere except in vertically challenged Southwest Florida. Flooding the land doesn’t make sense, Hardy charged.

He never planned to leave his homestead and fought to save it from the government’s taking. With his scruffy white beard and unfiltered language, Hardy became a hero to property rights advocates across the country.

Hardy paid $60,000 in 1976 for the sprawling property, which is a couple miles south of Interstate 75 along the Faka-Union Canal. He built a house and made a living by selling off the prized limestone that lay just a few feet below the surface.

The only electricity came from a generator. His only neighbors were the raccoons, bear cubs and squirrels. His companions were a boy named Tommy, whom Hardy raised as his own, along with the boy’s mother, Tara Hilton.

Southern Golden Gate Estates was one of the most spectacular land busts in Florida history. By the early 1970s, what was once supposed to be the largest subdivision in America had turned into a weed-pocked, ill-drained pocket south of I-75 and north of U.S. 41 East.

The state of Florida began buying land in the old subdivision in the mid-1980s. Over the next two decades, the state Department of Environmental Protection would buy thousands of lots. Hardy was the last holdout.

When he finally did sell, he quickly learned that $4.95 million doesn’t go as far as one would expect. His new home on 2.73 acres in the relatively staid Orangetree neighborhood cost $750,000 and came fully furnished and landscaped. Attorney fees and settling a dispute with his rock-hauling contractor ate up several hundred thousand more dollars.

So far, suburban life is chafing the old man’s spirit. He has trouble sleeping.

“I don’t like it. It’s not me. It was so nice out there (in Southern Golden Gate Estates). I could walk down the canal and watch all the wildlife.

“Maybe a home don’t mean nothin’ to other people, but it means something to me.

“I’ve just been trying to get it out of my system and accept it, that there’s nothing else I can do,” Hardy said.

The South Florida Water Management District’s contractor, Cross Construction Services, has seven months to clean up 160 sites scattered across the subdivision-turned-forest. Hardy’s water-filled mining pit already is incorporated into the design of one of the pump stations.

The water management district, which is heading the restoration effort, also plans to begin filling in another five miles of the Prairie Canal in mid-August. Workers filled in the northernmost two miles in 2004 to kick off the project.

Ten contractors have submitted bids for the canal-filling work, ranging from $2.4 million to $4.1 million. The contract also calls for grinding down most of the roads east of the Merritt Canal and installing culverts beneath Stewart Boulevard and Janes Scenic Drive.

“We’re moving ahead on schedule,” said Chip Eitel, the district’s project manager.

Hardy, who became disabled after a helicopter jumping accident with the Navy Seals, plans to return to work soon as a real estate agent for St. Joe Co., a Jacksonville-based real estate and forestry company.

A native of the Gulf Coast town of Port St. Joe, Hardy said he grew up with many of the company’s executives. He can sell the property without leaving his house, he added.

But one property deal still haunts him.

His mind is full of should-haves. He should have gotten a different attorney. He should have gotten a better price. He should have never moved away at all.

“If there’s anybody in Collier County who doesn’t think I got (a bad deal), I’ll gladly buy their land for $30,000 an acre,” Hardy said.