For 22 years Ed Fishback appraised Green Swamp land for Ron Daniel, the Southwest Florida Water Management District officer who buys land for the state. It wasn't always a walk in the park.
"I remember many experiences with Ron when we were almost trapped," says Fishback, who never went on a survey without one of the agency's four-wheel drive vehicles. "We'd hook a cable around a tree; you could winch yourself out of most situations. Been in some situations where you couldn't find a tree. We'd be in water up to your ankles waiting for someone to come in and rescue us."
Dedicated by the state in 1974 as an "Area of Critical State Concern," the Green Swamp comprises 322,690 acres of Polk and Lake counties defined by rolling grasslands and low cypress swamps that sit atop a layer of clay and muck soils that tend to hold water. Indeed, just over half the land is under water for at least part of the year.
Regulations established by the state, the district and the local counties make use of the area problematic for anything other than agriculture, grazing, logging or sand mining. Polk County, in fact, requires a minimum lot size of 20 acres in order to construct a house in the Green Swamp, says Polk County planner Ana Martinez-Hubert.
David Siegel sold thousands of acres in the Green Swamp, including the area called Devonwood and marketed to buyers both in the United States and Mexico. Although more than 100 landowners received deeds to their property, there is still no road access.
In a 1993 report seeking to overturn some of the development restrictions in the area, the Coalition of Green Swamp Property Owners said unrecorded subdivisions, including Devonwood, total 30,000 acres, or more than 15 percent of the Green Swamp area within Polk County alone. But the land "is virtually undevelopable under existing Polk County development criteria," said the coalition report.
Daniel is trying to buy back land for the water management district in the northwest corner of the Green Swamp, typically for about $800 per acre. He says he still meets owners of small lots who have no idea where their land is located. "We've come across people `who` claim they have waterfront property," he says. "They say, ‘I bought land close to Disney.'"
Daniel says many of these investors don't believe their land is worth so little until he shows them their property. "I've had people who were astounded," he says.
"Many many people bought their lots sight unseen," says Jerry Adams, spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is buying Green Swamp land in Lake County, including some that Siegel sold as investment property. In many cases, Adams says that the buyers paid more for the land 20 years ago than it's worth now. By law, the state cannot pay more for the land than its appraised value.
The sheer numbers of owners has slowed the buy-back process, according to Daniel. "You spend a lot of time on an area when you have multiple ownerships," Daniel says. "You spend as much time buying 10 acres as you would 50 or 100 acres."