SEBRING – It’s a 126-mile, two-hour-plus trip south through the groves and pastures of central Florida, the marsh bordering the Big Cypress National Preserve and straight into history that brings Sebring to the swamps.
The issue bringing together Highlands County and the small, unincorporated community of Chokoloskee in Collier County isn’t one of massive rural development or highways cutting through wetlands: it involves the Ted Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee, a small, unincorporated town in Collier County on the western edge of the Everglades and deep in the middle of the 10,000 Islands, population just under 400.
The general store was opened by Ted Smallwood in 1906 and in 1989 became a non-profit museum functioning as a time capsule with contents that take visitors back into a distant Florida unfettered by modern technology, ecological disruptions and personal priorities.
At the heart of the matter in this tiny Florida enclave about 80 miles south of Ft. Myers that factors in Highlands County is a Sebring developer and Smallwood’s owners led by Smallwood’s granddaughter, Lynn McMillin.
In April 2010, Florida-Georgia Grove LLP, a Sebring-based development partnership, allegedly bulldozed a shell-filled pile of sand on Chokoloskee, which on one side ruined an ancient Indian mound or on the other, amounted to moving a dried-up pile of fill dirt.
In the process, McMillin and Chokoloskee residents have accused Greg Griffin, president of Sebring’s Bayhead Consulting Inc. that has done permitting for the Florida-Georgia Grove project, of leveling part of Florida’s history and put the Ted Smallwood Store in jeopardy of closing since access is now limited. Ted Smallwood died in 1951 but his daughters kept the store open on the 4.75-acre property until 1982, the store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 McMilliin opened the store as a museum.
McMillin said the work done by Florida-Georgia, namely tearing up Mamie Street which leads to the store, impeded access and the erection of a locked chain-link fence in front of the store has continued to keep folks from visiting, despite the development partnership having Mamie Street resurfaced in April 2012, about a year after it was originally torn up. The road work and fencing around the store was done to possibly get approval of a permit request to develop a marina river basin west of the property on Chokoloskee Bay.
The road had stayed closed for nearly a half-year until the Collier County Commission got involved joining in a lawsuit with the McMillins; a county judge ordered Florida-Georgia to repair the road and keep it open until legal issues were resolved.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen now. We’ve tried to work with their people but they’ve been very difficult,” McMillin said by phone Thursday. “They’ve done everything they can to destroy the store.”
However, Griffin contends Florida-Georgia did nothing more than take spoil from the adjacent basin in 2012 and dispersed it as county permitting allowed. He said no archaeological artifacts were taken, contends that Mamie Street is a private driveway-road, not a public street, and the Collier County Property Appraiser’s aerial maps show the storefront road is on the partnership property,
Florida-Georgia began buying the Chokoloskee properties in 2004, which eventually became the nearly five-acre parcel with a part of Mamie Street that led to the store, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Since then, Griffin and Florida-Georgia partners, which includes Highlands County businessmen Gary Blackman, John Haviland, Leland Brooker Jr., Thomas Lovett Sr. and Mark McLean, have been working to have the access street classified as private, not public. Griffin said aerial maps from the Collier County Property Appraiser’s Office show that to be the case.
Florida-Georgia got permits from local, state and federal agencies to reconstruct the Blue Heron Marina next to Smallwood’s in 2009 and that fall negotiated and agreed with the store to exchange land on which the store property encroaches next to Mamie Street, said Griffin. Permitting began and Florida-Georgia permits with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to provide access via Calusa Drive east of the museum.
In 2004, Florida-Georgia first bought adjacent tracts in Chokoloskee to sell or develop and looking over the county’s land records, decided that Mamie Street -- the first road built on the island -- is a private driveway.
“The only goal the partnership had was to take a road encroachment that bisected the property and move it to one side should the courts decide that Smallwood’s access is not sufficient,” he said. “This is a case that may set the stage on a state and national scare for landowners’ rights.”
But in Chokoloskee, in conjunction with Collier County, McMillin differed and filed suit against Florida-Georgia stating the access road is public and Florida-Georgia has no right to get rid of the road. From Chokoloskee Thursday, McMillin said she’s baffled why the dispute persists and that the area Griffin and his partners tore up has since become an eyesore and the road was only repaved after contempt-of-court bench warrants were issued.
McMillin said Smallwood store was closed due to the road closure for about six months and visitors are still hesitant to venture down Mamie Street.
“I don’t know anywhere else in Collier County where the county would allow an area to be so overgrown and not maintained,” said McMillin, who still works at the store only accessible by boat until 1956. “They left dead trees leaning onto the road, preventing (tour) buses from getting to the store. Even now, would I take that road to go to a tourist attraction? I’d say, ‘No.’”
Despite the differences, in 2010, McMillin worked with the Sebring developer, even applying to the Army Corps of Engineers to build another road to the store, but was turned down due the presence of Mamie Street after part of the road was already dug up in 2011 just before the museum was closed.
Over the past two years, Griffin said Florida-Georgia has built out the marina basin, dredged backfill and removed exotic vegetation.
At this point, the situation between a small Florida enclave, the Collier County Commission and a builder with bigger plans is on its way to litigation, scheduled for trial sometime in October in Collier County. A judge has ordered mediation and Griffin said a settlement agreement is “on the table.” The Collier County Commission is scheduled to review the agreement in September.