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Standing his ground

The government wants his land - really wants it - but Jesse Hardy isn't interested. It isn't about money, he says. It's about fighting for what's his.

Published March 1, 2005

[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
In 1976, Jesse Hardy bought 160 acres of swampland that nobody else wanted. And he intends to keep it.

Jesse Hardy feeds bread to the fish in one of the stocked ponds on his land. The ponds are a byproduct of his limestone mining operation.
He started out living in his truck and then a shed, but now Jesse Hardy lives in this house he built himself. He has air conditioning, a satellite dish, a cell phone and other modern conveniences.
One of Jesse Hardy's cats lounges on his property, east of Naples. Also sharing the digs are a few more pets and a family friend and her son.
The house and its appliances, like this stove, are powered either by solar energy, propane or a big generator out back.

EAST OF NAPLES, TURN LEFT AT THE BUCKET - Once, the land under Jesse Hardy's feet was an underwater reef, and nobody owned it and nobody wanted it.

Then it became more or less solid, part of South Florida. To the east, the Everglades grew drier and drier. To the west, a town called Naples crept closer and closer. In the 1970s, developers peddling paradise dug canals, built roads and carved the swamp into squares of empty promises. Too remote to be developed, it stayed pretty much abandoned, except for Hardy. Looking for an escape from Miami, he bought a chunk of it in 1976 and lived on it in his truck.

It was harsh, unlovely land, miles from anything, with rocky ground, slash pines, swamp cabbage and sand gnat swarms so thick he had to hold his breath. No electricity or sewer or water. Hardy built a shed, then a house. Dug a well. For 30 years, nobody bothered him. Now they won't leave him alone.

The state wants to buy Hardy's property for its $8-billion Everglades restoration project, which, in theory, would flood his land and everything around it. But first, Hardy has to get out of the way, and he is not inclined to go.

"They're trying to get rid of me right here," says Hardy, 69. "This here land was not worth nothing. I sat here and loved it. It ain't much, but it's been good to me."

Hardy paid $60,000 for his 160 acres, now valued for tax purposes at $860,000. The state offered him $711,725 in 2002. He said no.

It offered him $1.2-million in 2003. He said no.

$1.5-million? No.

$4.5-million? No. No. No.

"I know I'm fighting a hell of a big person. I'm fighting the governor of Florida and his Cabinet," Hardy says.

"What they're trying to do is take all the humans . . . bunch up people like in real close proximity, get all the people in one damn bunch so they can say, "Don't go out over there! A chicken'll get ya!'

"They're trying to stop a way of life."

* * *

Some people say the Everglades Restoration Plan is the nation's largest, most important ecological project. Jesse Hardy is not one of those people.

The idea is to tear up the roads and plug the canals so freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean like juice spilled on a countertop, giving habitat back to the panthers and wading birds.

Hardy insists he's not in the Everglades, and the state can do its science experiment without his contribution.

"The Everglades is 30 miles east, thataway," he says, pointing.

His lawyer, Karen Budd-Falen of Wyoming, has hired experts to say that his land was never underwater. It has big fat trees on it. It's no river of grass.

"I think the state just wants the land," she says. "He's out in the middle of nowhere, and they don't want anybody out there."

The state would make his land part of Picayune Strand State Forest, linking four reserves that surround it. State officials and environmentalists say his property is essential. They call it the "hole in the doughnut."

The state has already bought or taken 1,859 parcels - more than 54,000 acres - between Interstate 75 and U.S. 41. Only the Miccosukee Indians and Hardy are still hanging on. Hardy is the last remaining homesteader.

"There's nobody left," Budd-Falen said.

* * *

Although Hardy is famous and gracious with visitors, he's still sometimes portrayed as a hermit or a swamp rat. Call him that and he will begin to cuss.

He built the house himself, drilled the wells himself with a bit he made himself. Ask how he learned to do these things and he will say, "I got me a book."

Life was pretty crude in the beginning. He'd wait for a warm day to take a shower. But now he has air conditioning, reverse osmosis, a washing machine, a cell phone, a satellite dish. He has solar panels on the roof and a big generator out back.

He reads newspapers and loyally watches Greta Van Susteren and Hardball. He's showing off his bathroom - "I don't need no gold-plated plumbing to get me a good shower" - when a Fox News alert informs him that we could all die any day.

"All they do is talk about who's going to blow us up next," he says, and then he launches into an analysis of the situation in the Middle East.

He lives here with a family friend, Tara Hilton. They've never been romantically involved, but he took her in when her son was born nine years ago. Hardy raises Tommy as his son, plays Frisbee and basketball with him, pays for his $45-an-hour tutor, hangs his crayon art on the walls.

"He never would've had no chance for no daddy or nothing," Hardy says.

He supports his family and pays his lawyers with a sizable limestone mining operation. A couple of hundred trucks run on and off his land every day, hauling $18 profit each.

The pits fill with water from below the surface, and he stocks them with catfish, bream and turtles. He wants to run a fish farm here and leave it to Tommy when he's gone. So far, Tommy won't eat the fish they catch here. He thinks they're pets.

With the money the state has offered, Hardy could live pretty much wherever he wants. But he's already there. Girlfriends have told him it's too lonely here. But he has never felt that way.

"Let me tell you about being lonely," he says. "You could be in a roomful of people and be lonely as hell. I've been in Miami when I was just lonely as hell. Out here, for some reason, I've never been lonely."

* * *

In April, when Hardy was in the hospital with prostate cancer, Tara and Tommy went to Tallahassee to plead his case to the governor and Cabinet.

Tara's voice was shaking, and Tommy was too shy to say anything at all. So Tara told the governor about the fish farm they want to build.

"We want to do it so the people of Collier County can bring their sons and their little girls to come out to fish and play in the dirt," she said, "and have a place for kids to be kids, because all these places are disappearing."

She told him how deer come up to the house windows. And about the wild boar - "a piney wood rooter" - that came out of the woods and started living under the house. That made the governor chuckle.

"We're not trying to stop any projects," she said. "If you would just let us stay and it floods, we'll swim out and give you the land."

Gov. Jeb Bush asked his staff to look at ways to work around Hardy, or let him sign away his right to sue if he ended up treading water.

"I'm just breaking out in a rash just thinking about this," Bush said. He shook Tommy's hand.

But his staff said letting Hardy stay won't work. In May, Bush ordered eminent domain proceedings so the state can force Hardy off.

All the players will sit down for formal mediation in March - more offers and counteroffers. If that doesn't work, they'll have a two-day hearing, probably in April. Hardy's attorneys have also filed suit in federal court. They can't predict how this will turn out.

"Who knows?" Budd-Falen said. "But I think a lot of people underestimate Jesse Hardy, that's for sure."

* * *

There has been a lot of talk lately about what the land is worth.

"That's a hard question," Hardy says. "It depends what they're going to let you do with it. I could put houses, an RV park, make a fortune. Hell, I could have trailers lined up here to Timbuktu."

But that's not really what he wants. And he says it's not the point.

"This is mine," he says. "This is mine, by God. It's my damn land. It ain't for sale."

The first time he saw it, it reminded him of land he would look at through fences as a little boy.

He grew up around Port St. Joe, where the St. Joe Paper Co. owned almost a million acres. Its paper mill opened when Hardy was 3, and he hated the mill and the company his whole life.

He grew up without electricity on an acre or two in the woods. His mother took in laundry, washed it in a pot and hung it on a line. She tried to move them away from the mill, but the stink followed.

"It was a brutal g- d-- mill," he says. "Mama said it's killin' all of us. The fumes were so bad she couldn't hang clothes. She'd say that stink is dripping out of the sky."

The paper company cut ditches and rights of way and put up fences. Now a realty company, it is still the largest private landowner in the state. As a kid, Hardy couldn't find land to hunt or fish. The oysters and clams in St. Joseph Bay tasted bad. One day after a storm, he found his swimming hole filled with sand. He felt small.

"I knew land was power because I couldn't get to it," he says. "I learned that as a kid because we couldn't go hunting, we couldn't go fishing or nothing. I've never had anything."

He left the Panhandle for the Navy SEALs, where he was disabled in a training jump. When he got out, he got a real estate license and worked as a property appraiser in Miami. He also made fishing nets, ran a vegetable stand and worked for the Port Authority.

His 160 acres of swamp was the first land he ever bought.

"This is all I've ever owned," he says. "I knew it was power."

Hardy is pitching whole slices of moldy bread into his fish pond. The big oscars are attacking like terriers.

"I love nature," he says. "I've got more environmentalist in my little finger than they've got."

He's talking about the state Department of Environmental Protection. And the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society and the South Florida Water Management District and everyone else who has ganged up to pressure him to sell.

"The environmentalists, that is our problem," Hardy says. "That's America's problem.

"I'm not talking about no scorched-earth policy. What I'm talking about is sense. We're up to our armpits in alligators because people are just crazy. They're fanatics.

"In the paper today, there's a story about damn red-cockaded woodpeckers and they're saving them and going through all kind of hell. People are not running around shooting red-cockaded woodpeckers. I haven't shot one in 20 or 30 years.

"God, spare me from the damn environmentalists, 'cause they are the cause of me being in the jam I'm in."

* * *

Nancy Payton is one of those damn environmentalists.

To her face, "it's usually Ms. Payton," she says. She represents the Florida Wildlife Federation, which supports the restoration plan. She has dealt with Hardy for years.

She's heard about how much he loves his land. She's skeptical about that.

"I have a hard time digesting "I love the land, but I'll sell it off truckload by truckload,' " she says. "I think it is about the money."

She says his limestone operation is bad for the environment because his ponds interrupt the way the land drains. Hardy and his attorney dispute that.

Payton acknowledges that Hardy has a fan base in Naples. There's even a folk song about him, The Ballad of Jesse Hardy, which you can listen to on his Web site,

"He periodically gets a lot of coverage because he is kind of likable," Payton said. "There are also people who are a bit exasperated."

Budd-Falen, Hardy's attorney, grew up on a fifth-generation cattle ranch. She said it can be hard even for people who love the environment to understand people like Jesse Hardy.

"Sometimes environmentalists are not about protecting the environment, they're about stopping use," she says. "Isn't that what the King of Nottingham did in Robin Hood?"

Hardy acknowledges that he makes money off his land, although he sends a lot of it to lawyers.

He says he doesn't need it. He doesn't really want anything except to leave something to Tommy.

"I don't need no cruises," he says. "I went on some nice long cruises in the Navy."

He says he fights because it's in him to fight. But he also says this land is what he has to leave behind.

"It's for the people of Collier County," he says. "They'll say, "There's that fish farm that Hardy built, and we're still getting fish off it.' "

If the state gets the land, he figures they'll put a fence around it.

He can't stand the thought of that. Of some little boy on the other side of it, looking in.

-- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or

If you'd like to know more about the Everglades Restoration Plan, click on Jesse Hardy's Web site is

[Last modified February 28, 2005, 17:04:02]

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