NAPLES — Put the road back. And pave it.
Read Judge Lauren Brodie’s lips: Put. The. Road. Back.
Not the lousy, pothole infested, unpaved, mosquito-watered, shell-shocked hiking path unfit for cars, coon or man that contemptuous Highlands County developers Florida Georgia Grove LLC (FGG) built a few months ago in Chokoloskee.
No, the Judge is talking about historic Mamie Street. That’s what FGG was told last summer after a tense hearing before Judge Hugh Hayes: “Put the road back the way it was” – a paved thoroughfare that, for almost a century, crossed the heart of Chokoloskee Island and led thousands of visitors annually to the historic Smallwood Store and Museum at the water’s edge.
The developers chopped up and removed the road under cover of darkness last April 14. However, cutting off access to the Museum, in a show of force to bolster a property dispute – the surprise action was deemed inappropriate last summer by Judge Hayes who ordered the road restored “the way it was” before being torn up.
Hayes’ order was further supported on Dec. 29 by Judge Brodie, who viewed slides of the restored “road,” found FGG in contempt and gave the developers 45 days to fully restore the County two-lane road, which transverses their property. This time, the Judge said, “pave it” and make it right or else penalties (to be determined later) will be assessed.
The Judge’s decision was a surprise to FGG, whose project director, Gary Blackman, leapt to his feet, backed up and began waving for the Judge’s attention as bailiffs neared. Blackman had earlier described the “restored road” as “one of the finest shell-rock roads you can find anywhere.”
Smallwood Museum executive director Lynn McMillin, however, testified that tour buses and vans were “either afraid to try or unable to make it up that road, it was so messed up.” She said, “Every time it rained, more and more potholes appeared. For months, until the word got out, we were seeing the tour buses come to the Mamie Street turn off Chokoloskee Road, take one look at the ‘road’ and turn around.”
The Ted Smallwood Trust, the nonprofit that owns the store, was joined in the court battle by Collier County; the road was officially designated a County road when Judge Hayes declared a prescriptive easement existed. (Hayes later recused himself from the case when FGG accused him of favoring the County’s position.)
“They know we can’t afford to put any more money up. The Store has been closed, for all practical purposes for the past nine months,” McMillin said. County governments are not required to put up bonds in such cases; County attorney Steve Williams, however, refused to comment on “pending litigation.” “I’d like to, but I can’t,” he said.
Prior to the Dec. 29 court proceeding, Florida folk musicians and Florida preservation supporters, including Seminole Tribal citizen Richard Osceola, gathered on the Court House steps to play music, wave signs – “SAVE THE SMALLWOOD STORE” and address a gathered crowd and passersby.
“We just want the judge and the Collier County officials to know there are a lot of people who love the Smallwood Store,” Marco Island fiddler J. Robert said. “We won’t stand for any more attacks on our precious Florida landmarks.”
Many who heard the Judge’s ruling had a similar question, also voiced by Robert: “If John Q. Citizen or J. Robert goes out here and disobeys a Circuit Judge’s order and are found in contempt, you can bet we would go to jail and get a big fine. But these big developers seem to get a second chance. Why?”
Judge Brodie can’t say. Collier County Circuit Court Judges do not discuss details of ongoing cases.