Showdown in Chokoloskee
This is how Old Florida gets destroyed.
The bulldozers come on little crab feet.
Just before daybreak, April 14, 2011, they silently crept onto tiny Chokoloskee Island. The largest atoll of the Ten Thousand Islands chain, Chokoloskee is a three-tenths-square-mile rise of Glades culture shell mounds, old barnacled crab traps and 393 residents at the extreme southern tip of Southwest Florida.
It’s a balmy, fish-jumping, palm tree-swaying, osprey-crying cracker paradise.
On orders from a pack of wealthy Highlands County land speculators, the heavy equipment began chopping up historic Mamie Street, a principal road on Chokoloskee, named more than 100 years ago for the wife of pioneer Ted Smallwood. Townfolk, awakened by the rapture, stood in shadows nearby, shocked, yelling curses and flipping their bird fingers and coffee at the vandals.
When the dust of limestone, asphalt and fossil had settled, the lower 983.64 feet of Mamie Street was gone. It was now an impassable mess of piled rubble, chunked with fragments of aboriginal mound, and pocked with VW-deep chasms of mosquito water—in short, a bombed-out landscape like those you see on TV in Beirut. A tall fence, covered by green tarp with little square eye holes, stretched across the heart of the island, blocking the only access to the legendary Smallwood Store and Museum, where the now-deceased Mamie Street once met the water’s edge at sparkling Chokoloskee Bay.
An historic icon of the area known as Florida’s Last Frontier, the Smallwood Store occupies a special place in the histories of Seminole Indians, Gulf fishermen, the Everglades and Collier County and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for 40 years. Over the next six months, more than $50,000 worth of business rolled into Chokoloskee, saw the fence, turned around and got the heck out of town. Area seafood restaurants began talking class-action suit. Worst-off season since Hurricane Andrew.
Florida Georgia Grove LLP (FGG), owners of the land the road transverses, had no real permission to take out the road, nor did they notify Collier County public safety officials. Though the Sheriff’s Department refuses to comment, many witnesses reported Collier County deputies on hand to protect the road busters.
“There were threats,” explained FGG attorney Jim Kelly, who noted the site wasn’t far from the spot where outlaw Edgar Watson was gunned down by citizen vigilantes in 1910. “We didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“Have we finally run out of places to despoil elsewhere in Florida in the name of progress? Must we now suffer swarms of developers, like mosquitoes in a hot windless summer day, here in the paradise of the Last Frontier?” -Peter Matthiessen, author of Killing Mr. Watson
There aren’t many roads down here in the Last Frontier.
Fact is, the extreme bottom Southwest Florida hinterlands of the United States, where the Everglades, Ten Thousand Islands and Big Cypress Swamp lie, is considered the largest most roadless area in the lower 48 states.
For that reason alone, it’s a big deal when they come and take a road out.
But what happened on tiny Chokoloskee in the early dawn hours of April 14 is a black-topped nightmare still alive as this is written. Out of business for six months until FGG “complied” with Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes’ order to put back the road, the reddish, weathered, peckerwood 95-year-old Smallwood Store and Museum reopened to a poor excuse for Mamie—a dirt driveway full of potholes, bumps and tire-sucking mud provided by the FGG crew.
Then, two weeks later, on the 101st anniversary of Watson’s murder, with photos of the wreck of a road in front of him, and lawyers arguing about grading and paving, Judge Hayes abruptly recused himself from the case. While the judge will not comment, an FGG motion accused Hayes of not being impartial since the 1999 Collier County Court House Annex was dedicated in his name. Courthouse observers were stunned at Hayes’ backing off, wondering if any of the senior judge’s previous cases would be similarly affected.
“That’s absurd,” says Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta. “We put the man’s name on a building and now he can’t be a judge anymore? Absurd.” But, in reality, it was merely the latest absurdity in a case pitting a hardball cadre of deep-pocket outsiders versus a national historic treasure that has stood sentinel here. All in a county which, until recent times, was among the national leaders in population surge, new homes built and just about every other statistic having to do with wild, rampant development.
Oh, and did we mention that Coletta, publicly referred to as “Commissioner Foghorn Leghorn” by FGG attorney Kelly, is well known for his acting role as Edgar Watson in the county’s annual “Killing Mr. Watson” production?
“Smallwood Store is collateral damage to them. That’s all. I guess this is how it happens all over Florida. It’s how everything gets ruined. They just come in and take you down. And then get away with it. I just never thought they’d ever find us way down here.” -Store/Museum proprietor Lynn Smallwood-McMillin
In the middle of all this, last Aug. 2, the area celebrated the unveiling of four Neighborhood Watch signs in Everglades City, Chokoloskee, Plantation Island and Copeland.
“Neighborhood Watch? It’s a little late for that. Someone should have been watching the neighborhood when those boneheads came down and took out that road,” says Lee Noble, owner of Leebo’s Rock Bottom Bar, the area’s main watering hole. “You mess with Smallwood, you messin’ with all of us natives. That store been mindin’ its own bidness out there for a hundred years. Leave it alone!”
“Well how do these guys continue to get away with this?” a customer wondered. “I mean, if the sheriff won’t help, if the county don’t care, isn’t it time for frontier justice? How come a group of good ole boys don’t just go out and do a ‘Mr. Watson’ on those guys?”
Leebo looked up with a sad look on his face, voice real low, “Now, if I accidentally touch you, I might go to jail. That’s the times we live in. You can sneak into town and take up a road. But you can’t look a man in the eye.
“The reason they don’t do a ‘Mr. Waston’ on those boys is it’s not the 1880s anymore, son. Hell, the 1880s are long gone. They’ve been gone since around 1994.
“You kill Mr. Watson today, they’ll put you in jail.”
The modern settlement of Chokoloskee Island began in 1874. Early residents farmed, fished and caught turtles. Ten years later, 11-year-old Charles Sherod “Ted” Smallwood ran away from a mean stepmother in Georgia and somehow grew to manhood working with boats in Ybor City, Cuba and the Bahamas, finally landing in Chokoloskee where he married Mamie Ulala House in 1897. Nine years later, Ted opened his famous Smallwood Store and Indian Trading Post right on the waterfront.
The Store served as the area’s post office for the next 68 years. The original store fell to a hurricane in 1916 and was immediately rebuilt on the same point, 360 Mamie St. From the edge of the middle of nowhere, Smallwood Store was a main center of commerce for the Everglades, where an eclectic clientele of Seminole Indians (emerging from their swamp hideouts unsure if the wars were over), outlaws, hermits, traveling preachers, passing ship crews and scores of fishermen, turtle-men, plume hunters and crabbers were surviving in the watery paradise that was then, as now, the bottom of Florida.
In 1910, outlaw-turned-farmer Edgar Watson was gunned down at the store in one of American history’s most blatant examples of frontier vigilante justice. Watson, pursued by bounty hunters for murderous misdeeds out West, had taken to “paying” local farmworkers with bullets through their hearts on payday; a crowd opened fire when he arrived in his dinghy at the Smallwood Store on Oct. 2, an event memorialized in song and legend, most prominently in Peter Matthiessen’s award-winning 1990 novel Killing Mr. Watson.
Ted Smallwood died in 1951, but his store remained open until 1982. Granddaughter Lynn Smallwood-McMillin reopened the building in 1989 as a museum, which today attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually. In 1999, urged by Chairman James Billie, the Seminole Tribe of Florida purchased 4.13 acres from the Smallwood family for $984,000.
The land was contiguous to the Smallwood Store and included the old Blue Heron motel, a decrepit waterfront boat slip area and the southern end of Mamie Street, which came through the center of the property, the only legal access to the store. No one doubted the road was anything but a public thoroughfare. Problem is, Collier County just hadn’t got around to officially declaring it so.
But that didn’t matter.
It was Billie’s vision to create a marina and park to complement the store. It would accommodate an authentic Indian/fishing village area nearby, a living re-imagination of the past.
“My mother was getting too old to run the motel and care for the property,” says Lynn Smallwood-McMillin, “so she decided to sell it to the Seminoles because she knew that James Billie would never let anything bad happen to it.”
In December of 2004, however, Billie was out of office. The Seminole Tribe sold the property to FGG, much to the chagrin of both Billie, who says the sale was hidden from Tribal members, and the McMillins, who knew nothing of their new neighbors. The parcel was purchased from the Tribe for $1.5 million. The property was appraised in 2010 at $990,000.
Around the same time, Coletta called for a public boat ramp in the area—one of Florida’s top fishing and boating spots. The Trust For Public Land agreed to pursue, negotiate and buy boat ramp property, with the county’s guidance.
FGG jumped into the project. “We wanted to build the marina and boat ramp, make a real nice park and then sell it to the county,” remembers attorney Kelly. “Then the county just pulled out of the deal.”
Both the trust and the county said no for the same reason. Colletta: “They wanted to sell us the whole tract for a park. It was too expensive.”
Undaunted, FGG decided to build the marina, anyway.
FGG Project Director Gary Blackman had a plan.
“We had to take that road out. I mean, you don’t want to have people going back and forth all day through the middle of your private property, do you?” -FGG attorney Jim Kelly
In early november 2010, FGG officials met with Lynn Smallwood-McMillin beneath a giant round waterfront chickee built by Chief Billie behind her home. They convinced her to submit an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permission to build an access road through nearby property owned by the store. They mentioned removing Mamie Street for the first time.
The proposed access, marked on the deed, would come off Calusa Drive (a dead-end private road in public use for decades), travel through a 6,000-square-foot jungle of mangrove tidal wetlands (owned by the Smallwoods) west of the store. FGG proposed to build an asphalt road and pay for all costs, including landscaping, application and permit fees.
The store’s available cash reserves, planned to fix critical structural damage beneath the store, was nearly depleted from legal costs. Her lawyers advised Smallwood-McMillin to cooperate. She signed the application Nov. 4, 2010.
“I really didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t know what else to do. These were big talkers. They seemed sure of what they could do,” said Smallwood-McMillin. “So I signed.”
Titled “Smallwood Store Driveway,” the project advocated the new access “including dredging in, on, or over wetlands and other surface waters.” FGG offered to purchase .065 credits in the Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank to offset the impact of the project.
Objections to the application came in swiftly, all negative. The “proposed filling of the mangroves for roadway construction” would violate the Clean Water Act,” create an “adverse impact to Chokoloskee Bay” and mess with the “estuarine food chain.”
National Marine Fisheries and the Army Corps’ own engineers wanted to know why another access was needed. The great majority of public commenters either felt the project was pointless “because Mamie Street is already there,” or would create a “safety hazard” for children playing on Calusa Drive.
On March 11, the Army Corps sent an email to FGG contractor Doug Griffin asking about rumors that FGG was going to fence its property and take out Mamie Street. Griffin replied four days later, baring the soul of FGG’s scheme. By removing the Mamie Street access, FGG’s mangrove scheme would have to be approved. The law says a landowner must have “suitable upland access” to his or her property,” Griffin pointed out.
In an April 4 meeting attended by FGG representatives, the Army Corps staff had bad news. Smallwood-McMillin’s application would likely be denied. Official notice would come later. Smallwood-McMillin was not notified of the meeting.
“They knew that if I had been there and heard the bad news that I would have gone and sought an injunction to prevent them from closing down the store with their fence and tearing up the road,” she says.
FGG’s Griffin said the company’s hand was forced: “Since the Army Corps plans to deny that permit, we had no other choice but to take out Mamie Street so that it could not be considered an access source.
“We have been working on this project for two and a half years. It seems we just keep beating our heads against the wall. We don’t want to make everyone mad, but we don’t think our request is unreasonable. We decided to use the shock-all approach, even though we know it wasn’t politically correct.”
“He wants to force the county to buy it,” says Smallwood-McMillin. “He came right out and admitted it. He’s what you call an honest thief!”
FGG attorney Kelly says Griffin spoke out of turn: “To say that we took out that road just to force the Army Corps to give us a permit is total (expletive).”
“We haven’t seen an example of developer hardball like this in some time.”—Naples Daily News editorial
The first call came to the Collier County Sheriff’s dispatch center at 7:51 a.m. Thursday April 14 by a resident who said a “contractor was attempting to fence off his property.” Witnesses report several cruisers and multiple deputies on the scene, but Sheriff’s records report only one deputy dispatched; he deemed the work “properly permitted.”
There was no permit.
“There was a traffic jam out here. There were four cop cars. Neighbors all over the streets. The developers claimed later they had been getting death threats,” says Smallwood-McMillin. “Any time those guys came to the property, there were deputies escorting them. The deputies would wait outside the fence until they left. Talk about a misuse of taxpayers dollars—protecting these guys while they take out a road that the county is now suing to have put back!”
The sheriff’s dispatch staff has no record of deputies escorting persons to and from the site.
Smallwood-McMillin received an angry call from Rhea McDuffie of the Army Corps, chastising her for the road removal. McDuffie “wanted to make it clear that my taking that road out was not going to affect the decision of (the Army Corps) on my permit. I was speechless,” Smallwood-McMillin says. “I told her, ‘Excuse me. I wasn’t at that meeting. I didn’t take out that road. I wasn’t there!’”
Two days later, “200 sport bicyclists and a tour bus filled with tourists,” were seen lurking around Chokoloskee, says Smallwood-McMillin. “They wandered around and left. It’s been that way ever since. Here we have big (Department of Transportation) signs on I-75, State Road 29, the Tamiami Trail. We’ve even on the state’s Florida Heritage Trail, but the developers took down our signs near the store. We put one up that said ‘Closed No Access’ and they took that down, too.”
The April 29 edition of the area’s bi-weekly Mullet Rapper newspaper carried a front-page letter from 11-year-old Chokoloskee native Tori Wells: “Dear Buyer & Destroyer of Mamie Street,” it began, “You have demolished the land where I and all my family and friends have been raised. Today was the first time I saw the fence you put up, and I cried. That road is our heritage and because of you, it is no longer there.”
Coletta met in person with FGG officials: “I gave them every opportunity to build that road back, without going to court. They are in a negative situation. It’s unbelievable but they chose to destroy the goodwill of the people of Chokoloskee.”
FGG’s Blackman told Coletta he would sell the property for $3 million—twice what they paid for it—and walk away: “Here’s a perfect opportunity to make Ms. McMillin happy, make everyone happy,” he told the Naples Daily News.
Coletta was insulted: “They made a land purchase and got hit by the recession. Period. They are between a rock and a hard place. They can never develop it. Four out of five county commissioners must agree on a zoning change. I can assure you that ain’t gonna happen. They made a bad deal. I don’t see us as the entity that’s going to have to bail them out.
“Besides, the county does not have $3 million. No one is going to buy it at that price. I met with them. We had a hell of a talk. Here were all the cards on the table. I told them, ‘Open the access to the Smallwood Store, and then we’ll talk about everything else.’ They said, essentially, ‘See you in court.’ ”
“I can assure you we do not want to be where we are right now. But ol’ Commissioner Foghorn’s got us pegged as three-headed monsters. The county attorney told him we were legal, but he jumped in screaming and hollering, anyway. Wait till we get him under oath in a deposition. I’m sick and tired of him trashing us in the newspapers, trying to get re-elected. People will soon find out: This guy is a real piece of work.”
—FGG attorney Jim Kelly
“On whose watch does this insanity occur? Who will be the judge and sheriff and the county commissioners whose names will be bronzed on the annals of infamy, forever despised as the foolish ones who opened the door?”
—author Peter Matthiessen
On may 10, angry commissioners directed the county join the Smallwood Store in a suit filed against FGG to restore access to the store. Commissioner Fred Coyle said he wanted to “smack (Blackman) upside the head with a two-by-four.”
On July 29, a large package arrived at Smallwood- McMillin’s door. It was the Army Corps’ application decision. Denied. The document invited McMillin to resubmit if the situation changed.
Two hearings were held in September, filled with legal minutiae, surveyor’s jargon and arguments about easements. Often, the proceedings took on the character of a Saturday Night Live skit: FGG attorney Steve Chase consistently called Mamie Street, which stretches across half of the island, a “driveway,” referring to the 600-foot mangrove path as a “road.” Former Highlands County engineer Carl Cool, with straight face, declared he had visited the rubble site that very morning and, by measuring chunks of road, came up with a profile of Mamie Street that put the street’s width at 13 feet—way too small to have been a certified county road. In the audience, Goodland resident Colin Kenny shook his head: “I see where they have the fox measurin’ the chicken coop now!”
Aerial photographs on Google Earth show the road much wider than 13 feet, able to handle two lanes. “There were a lot of lies in this courtroom today,” said Smallwood-McMillin. “They knew before they walked in the door they could not win, so they resorted to lies. I’m so glad the judge saw through it all.”
Citing Mamie Street’s documented 75 years of public use, pointing out the use of the road predated cars coming to the island (1956) and it was the only road one could use to get to the post office, Judge Hayes found in favor of the store, giving FGG 30 days to take out the fence and rebuild the road.
On Oct. 15, the 30-day mark, the fence was opened to reveal more than 900 feet of really bad road, through a varmint-infested landscape—nothing like the Mamie they had originally chopped up. Attorney Rachael Loukenon immediately began filing motions.
Exasperated, Smallwood-McMillin shakes her head: “I guess we won. That’s what they tell me. But look at this piece of crap road! Tour buses can’t make it to the store. We have a lot of people drive up, take one look at the road and they turn around. People are afraid to take their cars on it.”
FGG’s property is still for sale.
Price is up to $3.5 million now.
Old Florida. If you can’t destroy it, might as well profit from it.
Editor’s note: At press time, a third judge, juvenile court Judge Lauren L. Brodie, had been assigned jurisdiction over the contempt case against FGG. Brodie was set to hear arguments near the first of this year.