Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Digress...

I think it's time you had a little more background on this

We bought this property in June 1999. We were captivated
the moment we saw it. We were up in the sand hills "on the
Ridge", but here was this heavily wooded vibrantly green
gem. There were berries aplenty, red maples, HUGE tupelos,
loblolly bays, water oaks, sweet bays, red bays, cinnamon
ferns galore, and things we had never seen before that
looked like something right out of the Jurassic era. We
explored it pretty quickly after our purchase and found the
creek in the back and were entranced. It didn't take but a
moment to decide to leave it as natural as we could, and
that's exactly what we did. We pulled miles of catbrier and
grape from the trees, clipped down the scrub in the front,
and removed the dead stuff. Grass started to grow around
the house. Our chosen landscape surrounding us is our
woods, which we love.
nyssa sylvatica

In 2000, we had the property surveyed and put in PVC to mark
each survey stake. We knew by then that this was a very wet

We began having some trouble with excess water running down our driveway, into our front yard, and under our house and discovered a culvert needed to be replaced. When we had the folks out to replace the culvert, the neighbor came by (one of the ones who now denies any knowledge of wetlands) and told us,

"You can't do that! Your property is wetlands!"

We looked around at the "crawdaddy patties" and all the foliage and thought "Oh S**T, maybe it is!" One neighbor gave us a copy of a letter from the St. John's River Water Management District dated May 27, 1997 , above left, which said that our property is wetlands (referred to as the“Walker” residence on Page 2).

So my wife started making calls, more calls, and even more calls, to everyone: the Army Corps. Of Engineers, the Property Appraiser's Office, the County, the DEP, and lots of other folks. (We kept all of these records.) In March, 2001 after many calls, she finally got the opportunity to speak with Mr. David Mayo, Environmental Specialist, Northeast District, Gainesville, Florida DEP. Mr. Mayo offered to ride out to the house and look around. He did, and stayed most of the day. What he found here confounded him because there were obvious wetlands species growing here, but then there were things growing that didn't normally grow in wetlands. He asked if he could come out the next day with his boss. Both gentlemen came back the next day and stayed a good portion of the day. You see, my wife had already spent a great deal of time identifying much of the flora, and really, she enjoyed the visit with these guys. They took the time to walk out to the highway and traced excess water flow coming from there. They also looked at the creek, and around the house. They walked all over this property and looked at everything. What they left us with is this: This property beginning at the woods is wetlands, around the house is a transitional area that has been burdened with a lot of excess water from the highway, and out by our road was not wetlands. They even pointed out that the property to the east of us showed even more wetlands characteristics than ours. They told us to leave the woods alone, to not pull up any plants or dig, and that anything we wanted to do back there would require a wetlands permit. We discussed our plans for additional drainage ditches and culverts, so they left us with the proper permit to fill out, which was a Joint Application for Environmental Resource Permit/Authorization to Use Sovereign Submerged Lands/Federal Dredge and Fill Permit.

Mr. Mayo took the time to check off the areas of the application that we needed to fill out and asked us to prepare a plan for our project and fax it to him. We did that on March 29, 2001. Mr. Mayo collaborated with Mr. Mike Eaton and Mr. Rusty Price in the Jacksonville office because of the transitional area around the house. Mr. Mayo was also kind enough to leave a lot of educational material about wetlands, including a book on invasive species.

covers of materials Mr. Mayo left with us

My wife enjoyed working through the materials and learned much from these two men during their two day visit. We continued our wetlands studies, and still do to this day.

During the next several years, we worked on the natural landscape close to the house and frequently went into the woods to look at some of the endangered plants growing there, and to pick the berries, which were abundant. We have photos of some of the wild rhododendrons that grew back in the woods, and drawers of photos of the other species and our gardening projects.
(top right: rhododendron viscosum (L.) Torr., top left: Gordonia lasianthus,
Bottom two: rhododendron canescens endangered)

We kept journals of what we found and everything we did, made diagrams of where things grew, and hunted with the binoculars. My wife even made candles one Christmas out of the wax from the Wax Myrtles, and jelly for the neighbors from the blackberries. We even toyed with the idea of starting a company; “Loblolly Bay Botanicals” specializing in natural skin care products. Our land was very much a part of our lives. We abided by all of the wetlands laws and found ways to co-exist with this special environment that didn't involve making major changes. We have a wealth of wildlife and frequently sat on the decks watching the hawks, red fox, and deer. We treated the land with care and respect and looked at the woods with awe.

You already know, if you've been following my posts, that the neighbor came over and told us the fire line was to be done and that I even went with him to make sure all the property line markers were visible. I expressed concern for my trees and the creek and specifically requested the fireline be moved back off of the property line so that nothing would be damaged. When the Division of Forestry came and bulldozed through our property and the creek, we were at first sort of dumbfounded while we watched it happen, and thought,

"How can this be?
We are required to get a permit for everything,
and the DOF can bring these huge bulldozers in and destroy things like this?

Sink their bulldozers?

Did they get a permit?

Who issued that?

What about our trees? The creek?

What about the endangered stuff?

Who do we contact about this?"

It really was appalling to us and we had so many questions. We got in touch with the DOF to see what they would do to help us and initially spoke with Mr. Barry Coulliette who said he looked on his computer and there were no fire lines on the schedule for April 24th. He made a call to Mr. Kevin MacEwen and had Mr. MacEwen contact us about the damage. I almost got to meet Mr. MacEwen. I say almost, because when I extended my hand to shake his, he put his in his pocket and walked away. I then tried to introduce him to my wife and he turned his back and walked off before I even got a chance to say her name. There was little concern expressed, not even a comment from Mr. Kevin MacEwen about the creek. We did not get to address any of our questions. Mr. Kevin MacEwen was the one who said there wasn't much damage, our trees were worthless, and that no one wanted “those trees” anyway.

He left.

The same neighbor came over to our house and said, "I don't know what else I could have done! I'm sorry some of your trees got hurt, but just think of it this way...the property line is cleared so y'all can put you up a fence now!" I asked him if he had talked with the DOF about moving the fire line over and he admitted he had not.

He left.
He never came back.

Subsequent phone calls to other DOF folks led nowhere. One DOF individual (Myron) actually told me that the fire line was being bulldozed to stop the fire that was burning. I replied, "There is no fire burning!" He said, "There could be!"

No other neighbor, in particular, Ms. Neighbor who owns the lot next door, came to speak with us about the damage. No one offered to help us clean up the mess, or pay for any of the damage. No other apologies or concern. In fact, the other neighbor took his tractor into the wetlands and proceeded to do a lot of additional damage (he denied this to the DEP). The DOF kept coming back on Fridays from 9AM until 11AM to work, but it was odd...I wouldn't see them come in, but would see them leave (believe it...I was watching!), or I would see them come in, hear them work, but then never see them leave.

What the neighbor and the DOF
didn't know is that I have two exterior security cameras
that film the road and the side of the yard where the damage is.

We patiently waited for the DOF to get back with us.
No one did.

My wife tried to track down Mr. Dave Mayo with the DEP, but their offices had undergone some restructuring and no one seemed to know where Mr. Mayo was. She was finally put in touch with Mr. Don Jensen with the DEP who made an appointment to see the damage. We wanted to meet with Mr. Jensen to get it on record that we did not do this illegal thing since some of the fire line was on our property. We felt we needed to establish that we were not responsible for the damage to the creek and wetlands, and that we did not participate in the neighbors' wildfire mitigation program. The DOF and the neighbors had left us in a very bad position with regard to wetlands laws and regulations. Mr. Jensen said that he certainly saw violations and would "get right on it." Mr. Jensen was acquainted with Mr. Mayo and reviewed the materials we had kept from our previous work with the DEP. We also gave Mr. Jensen some video tapes.

When it became clear to us that we weren't going to get any help from the DOF or the neighbors, we retained an attorney in mid-June. We needed some advice, and needed some help with communications with the various agencies involved. We had specifically discussed the best way to handle this case with the attorney and we thought that in order to keep the peace in our neighborhood, it would be best to approach the DOF directly and to work with them (even though there were other options available to us). We were only trying to get the wetlands restored, and be reimbursed for the damage and our out-of-pocket expenses.

After having the initial meeting with the DEP, and the retention of our attorney, things took a decidedly hostile turn with regard to my neighbor's attitudes. I won't go into all the silly things the neighbors have done lately in retribution. It's not even worth my time. It also would be in bad taste to state why the particular location of this fire line is so aggravating over and above the sheer destruction of the wetlands and creek, but I will try to be as diplomatic as possible and simply say that everyone has an agenda.

Our agenda?
To live peacefully and enjoy the wonders this property is capable of showing us.

Well, you'd have to ask them, but I would bet my life their answer would be about as truthful as their statements to the DEP, SJRWMD, and the DOF have been.

We've never done anything to these neighbors to invoke their wrath, and over the course of ten years have consistently "turned the other cheek" when little affronts from their direction have happened. I mean, really, we tried to be as neighborly as possible and gave everyone ample opportunity to make things right.

When Mr. Bruce Hill with the DOF came to speak with my wife and our attorney on August 5, 2009 about "what it would take to make us happy", he prefaced the whole discussion with this statement:

"I am not here to listen to whatever issues you have with your neighbors"

as if WE were the ones that caused all of this havoc. Mr. Hill should have been living in this house during these past few months and he would have known where all the issues stem from, and it isn't from within our four walls. Mr. Hill was not in the position to acknowledge that any wrongdoing had happened but did admit that the work that was performed here was not indicative of the work typically performed by the DOF. He admitted the bulldozers had "buggered up the creek” and that some rehabilitative work needed to be done. Mr. Hill had initially agreed to send out a Biologist, Heather Venter, to work with my wife on some restoration plans, but then our attorney received a letter from Mr. John W. Costigan, Assistant General Counsel for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who is now handling this case for his client, the DOF. This letter (which I’ll post later) advised her that she and we must refrain from any further contact with the DOF, that Ms. Venter would not be meeting with us, and to contact him directly to discuss any restoration.

Our attorney phoned Mr. Costigan to discuss this matter, as his letter requested. He told our attorney that we had misrepresented the facts, that he doubted our truthfulness, and that he felt our motives in pursuing this case is simply to "stick it to our neighbors". For crying out loud!!! How could these facts possibly be misrepresented? The DOF admits their bulldozers caused the damage. It is clear that the bulldozer went on our property since they managed to leave each and every property line marker intact, and we have surveys to show where the property line officially is. Not truthful? What can be lied about here? The wetlands is what it is and the DOF did what they did. Stick it to my neighbors? How so? We didn’t do this bulldozing!

The DOF won't admit the area is wetlands even though their own reports and other agencies' reports say it is. They won't admit it because to do so would be an admission of guilt to a crime, since bulldozing wetlands while committing multiple criminal trespasses, and the destruction of endangered wetlands flora are crimes. The DOF just wants to throw their "immunity" out there and call US liars.

Does it make me mad?
Of course it does.

You bet.

But it is not the petty annoyances of some immature neighbors that does it. What sends me over the top is the folks at the DOF who will not step up to the plate, admit that a wrong thing has happened and take responsibility for their mistake. They, in my humble opinion, are far worse than vengeful neighbors. My attorney summed it up nicely when she said that what we have here is one governmental agency running around violating another governmental agency's regulations (and their own!) all at the taxpayers' expense.


These guys are in the position to be upstanding citizens and obligated to be public servants, empowered by taxpayers to protect property and uphold and enforce wetlands protection laws, but do they?

Instead, they speak denials vehemently like children.

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." - MARK TWAIN

My next post will address the ping-ponging jurisdictional quagmire that happened after the DEP's initial visit, so I'll hold off on that one until later.

No comments: