In the United States, a person's rights to life, liberty and property are enshrined in the constitution. Sometimes, the rights of the individual can clash with the intentions of the state. That's the case in Florida, where one man's refusal to sell his land to the state for a wetlands restoration project, has made him a folk hero to some. To others, he has become a stubborn obstacle to the greater good. VOA's Jim Teeple has more on the story of Jesse James Hardy, in this report from our bureau in Miami.
Time could be running out for Jesse James Hardy, a 69-year-old former Navy seaman, who has spent the last three decades living in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp. Mr. Hardy's land, once thought worthless, is now considered essential to restoring the Florida Everglades, a once pristine wetlands area that over the last century has been dredged and drained to the point where it is now just a fraction of its former size.
State authorities want Mr. Hardy's land, and have offered him more than four-million dollars for his 64 hectares (160 acres). Sitting in his modest wood frame house that he built with his own hands, Jesse James Hardy says he has no intention of selling.
"What is at stake for me here is 32 years of my life," he said. "Thirty-two years out here, with no infrastructure, no electricity and no telephone. I had to brave the elements for 32 years. I came here for the mere fact that the land was cheap. I bought it because I could not afford to go no where else. Now, they have taken all the land. They own three-quarters of Collier County, of this country where we are sitting. The environmentalists are not happy. They continually sold this as a bill of goods to help the Everglades, but it is 60 miles (96 kilometers) to the East."
Mr. Hardy's land sits in the middle of a failed housing complex, called Southern Golden Gates Estates. The land for that development was carved out of a swamp years ago, and subdivided by canals and dirt roads. State authorities and environmentalists say they want to tear up the roads and fill in the canals, and allow water to flood the land, to restore it to its natural wetlands condition.
State authorities are reluctant to comment on the dispute with Jesse Hardy. But Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation, an environmental group that has worked to restore the area for years, says his land is essential to the project.
"Southern Golden Gates is a keystone parcel, because it is surrounded on almost every side by public lands, conservation lands," she said. "It is remote from any public facilities. It is remote from schools and from even a supermarket. It is not a good location for people to be, and the best and highest use for Golden Gates Estates is to restore it."
Jesse James Hardy has become a symbol to some people of an individual besieged by government authorities and their allies in the environmental movement.
One supporter wrote a folk song about him, called The Ballad of Jesse James Hardy. It has sold well, and has generated considerable support for his cause.
Mr. Hardy says he has no objection to restoring the Everglades, and only wants to stay on his land. He says the project can go forward without him moving, but environmentalist Nancy Payton says that is not possible.
"In some restoration projects, it is possible that there can be folks who remain," she said. "But, in this case, it has been determined by the engineers, and all the professionals working on Southern Golden Gates Estates, that all the land is necessary, that maintaining roads is counter to having a natural sheet flow of water. And, therefore, Mr. Hardy has been offered $4.5 million for his property and other inducements. He will be fairly compensated for the loss of his property."
Jesse James Hardy says that is not the case, and he objects to people depicting him as some sort of a backwoods hermit. He says he is a businessman, who runs a limestone quarry on his property that generates considerable revenue. His land he says is his life.
"This is my life. This is it," he said. "It is no different than anyone else's life. Four-and-a-half million [dollars] sounds like a lot of money, but, in this day and time, 4.5 million will not last anytime. It would probably cost me $1 million just to move and put together another household."
Mr. Hardy has until the end of this month to accept the state's offer for his land. After that, state authorities could declare eminent domain, and seize his land. Jesse James Hardy says, if that happens, he will fight the state of Florida in court - a process he says could take years - further slowing down the process of Everglades restoration.