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Luna family fights SFWMD to keep their land

OKEECHOBEE—Stuart-based attorney Tim Wright stood in the middle of Courtroom B and, without mincing words, accused water managers of committing extortion and lying.

Mr. Wright, and co-counsel Bruce Harris of Orlando, are representing Bonnie Luna Byars and BLB Holdings against the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) eminent domain claim on over 300 acres of property owned by the Luna family in northern Okeechobee County.

Other defendants in this case include Patrick Luna, Mrs. Byars’ brother, and Montoya Ranch, Inc., which is also owned by the Luna family.

The district wants to take 303.70 acres to help restore the Kissimmee River from its current channelized state, back to a meandering river.

SFWMD attorney Keith Williams said in his Monday, Jan. 28, opening statement that approximately 263 of those acres would be taken as fee simple. That means the district would own that property outright and could do whatever it wanted with the land. The district would also acquire the remaining acreage as flowage easements, he added.

Mr. Williams also said the district needs property from Mrs. Byars and BLB Holdings that is in the 5- and 100-year flood plain.

And because the project has been declared a public project by legislators, Mr. Williams said this paves the way for the district to take the land by way of eminent domain.

“The district has met its burden to acquire the property,” he said.

In his opening statement Mr. Wright told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Metzger the Luna family was being forced to give up property that’s been in that family for generations. The family patriarch, he continued, is actually buried under a large tree on the property.

He said his case centers around two simple truths: first, water managers are trying to take more property than they need for the project; and, two, the district told his client they would only take easements on the property if she agreed to their offered price of $1.3 million. If not, they were going to take everything.

“The family is willing to grant them easements, and that’s all they need,” Mr. Wright told the judge.

According to a SFWMD land acquisition statement, the final purchase price of $1,354,194 is 10 percent over the appraised value based on the approved appraisal done July 24, 2011.

“Should the owners not accept the offer within 30 days, the district would initiate eminent domain proceedings,” adds that statement.

The owners did not accept that offer.

Mr. Williams told Judge Metzger that water managers have been acquiring property up and down the river, as well as in the Kissimmee River basin, for this project.

“The district started in 1976 to undo what it had done,” he said, referring to the straightening of the river.

Which, basically, adds merit to Mr. Wright’s arguments.

He pointed out that all along the project water managers have “... consistently taken easements instead of fee simple.”

To bolster that argument, Mr. Wright pointed out to Judge Metzger that SFWMD has already taken property neighboring Mrs. Luna’s. One piece of property belonged to Elsie Lanier, while the other acreage is owned by Pete Clements. In both cases, he continued, water managers only took easements.

“The district let a house remain on the Lanier property that was in the 5-year flood plain,” he said. “All along the project, the district has consistently taken easements instead of fee simple.”

Mr. Wright produced a letter dated April 4, 2006, in which both the district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated that the acquisition of property for the river restoration project was completed. The letter stated that 102,061 acres was needed for the project and that it had all be acquired.

“But, they hadn’t taken the Luna property,” said Mr. Wright.

Then, in May of 2008, the district said they weren’t going forward with the acquisition of the Montoya property due to budget constraints, added Mr. Wright.

But, in 2010, the SFWMD governing board passed a resolution stating the district was going to take the 373 acres belonging to the Luna family.

Then on Jan. 14, 2010, Mr. Wright said the district stated that they were going to take the property in fee simple and not easements.

He told the judge that the district’s case has major flaws, that include: taking more property than the law allows; taking more property than is needed for the project; the property has never been surveyed; and, the legal description the district attached to the resolution is different than the legal description attached to the petition.

Mr. Wright indicated the survey applied to the Montoya property that consists of just over 102 acres.

“They used survey techniques to find where the Montoya property is,” he told the judge, adding that no one actually went onto the property to do the survey.

Mr. Wright said while the project is a good project, the district does not need all of the property.

“The family is willing to grant them easements, and that’s all they need,” he said. “The Corps and the district don’t really care if it’s an easement—it’s all about the money (they’ll receive for the project).”

After taking testimony today, there will be a break and the trial will resume next month.