|Caught in government's vise: making a "willing seller"
By Henry Lamb
For years, Jesse James Hardy tried valiantly to avoid the day when the State of Florida would take his 160-acre "patch of heaven," 30 miles east of Naples. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering studies and legal fees, trying to convince the state that his land was not necessary to the Everglades Restoration Project. The state disagreed.
The court ordered one final mediation session between Jesse and the State to see if Jesse would become a "willing seller," rather than another victim of eminent domain. The courts had already taken the land of nearly 17,000 other landowners. Jesse was the last hold-out in a 55,000 acre parcel which lies 50 miles from the Everglades.
Jesse was accompanied by two attorneys, one of whom had filed an extensive lawsuit on Jesse's behalf, alleging a variety of illegal actions on the part of state and federal agencies. The other attorney was an eminent domain specialist.
"We can win this, Jesse, if you can just hang on," one attorney advised. Of course, there was no guarantee that Jesse would win, and the case, filed in federal court, could take years. Jesse's only income, besides a small disability check he receives from the military, was the sale of dirt from the excavation of what he planned to be four, 20-acre fishing lakes he was building on his property.
Collier County approved the four-lake plan three years ago, but after the state declared it wanted the land, the state asked the county to withdraw the permit. The county complied, and refused to renew Jesse's permit, leaving him with no source of income, or any hope of completing his dream.
There was no way Jesse could "hang on" for the years it would take for a final decision on his lawsuit.
The state had offered Jesse as much as $27,500 per acre for his land. But when Jesse looked around the area for comparable land, prices ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 per acre. He could not replace his land for the price the state offered.
The other attorney pointed out to Jesse, that there was no doubt that the court would take the land. The only question was the amount of "just compensation" the court would pay, and that decision would be made by a jury, not of Jesse's peers, but jurors selected from affluent retirees.
For years, local media have portrayed Jesse as a stubborn hermit, living in a shack in a wilderness, who in blocking the all-important Everglades Restoration Project. A jury would not likely be sympathetic with Jesse's values.
The marathon negotiating session lasted until 10:30 pm, when Jesse finally became a "willing seller:" he agreed to accept $4.95 million, about $31,000 per acre. He has to vacate the property by December 1.
The money was not paid to Jesse, but to the court, in order to ensure that all outstanding claims against Jesse would be paid. Claims are being filed that Jesse says he does not owe. The money is tied up, and the judge has scheduled a hearing for June 26. In the meantime, Jesse has no resources to arrange for another place to live. He doesn't even know how much will be left, or when it will be available.
Prior to the settlement, the county would not allow Jesse to sell the dirt from his excavations after his permit expired last year. Now, however, by arrangement with the state, the county is allowing a contractor to haul away the dirt.
Jesse is angry. He watched the county, state, and federal governments conspire to deprive him of his home and his dreams for the future. The price at which he became a "willing seller," is well below replacement costs, but above the amount he would likely have gotten from a jury or a court decree.
Jesse is just another victim of government's relentless quest to acquire private property. There are similar cases in progress in virtually every state, which do not get the publicity Jesse has generated. Once government gets private property in its cross-hairs, few people have the money, the time, or the expertise to mount a defense. The entire saga of Jesse's years-long battle is recorded at his web site.
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