After an hour of touring the “vacant” property in the Florida Keys she inherited from her mother, 80-year-old Petsy Mezey joked with the Monroe County code enforcement officer and the Sheriff Office’s deputy who accompanied her: “Anybody want a vodka?”
The 22-acre slice of paradise, which her father bought in 1956, is located across from the popular Alabama Jack’s bar and restaurant on Card Sound Road. On her visit, she discovered the place is now a disgusting dumpsite.
Her inheritance included discarded toilets, broken crab traps, hanging wires, rusted pots, decrepit docks, six derelict vessels, a fully sunken boat and a half sunken houseboat — and she became the person ultimately responsible for the expensive cleanup.
It all was left by squatters and commercial fishermen, who for decades had used her parents’ remote private land as the site of a marina, roadside shantytown and eye-catching souvenir shop, all illegally built among mangroves and over an environmentally sensitive waterway that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. “I had no clue,” said Mezey, who lives in Coral Gables.
Other people had done the same thing on state-owned land that stretched 1.5 miles into Miami-Dade County, creating a community that residents proudly called The Historic Fishing Village of Card Sound, Florida, documented by a homemade sign hung near the toll booth.
But five years ago, after decades of failed attempts, cleanup of the Miami-Dade side was completed, with everyone forced to leave. Now, Monroe County is cracking down on all the illegal structures and activities for its own environmental makeover.
Mezey said she felt badly that she had to kick everyone out, even though she and her parents, John and Viola Gautier, “never received a nickel” of compensation for use of their land. “This was the old Keys way of life,” Mezey said.
But that way of life was destroying the natural ecosystem. And most of the docks and structures were so deteriorated that public safety was a big issue. During one inspection trip, Monroe County code inspector Lisette Cutie found a man living in the half-sunk houseboat filled with a couple feet of water in the main cabin.
“He comes out with a cup of coffee in his hand,” she said. “I asked if he lived in there. He said: ‘What do you see wrong with it?’ ”
A man in a BMW recently stopped in front of the spot from which an American flag used to fly, marking the blue crab business of Paul Grala Sr., the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Card Sound.” The man left in disbelief. All that remained of Grala’s home and business, operated for more than 30 years on that private land, was a debris pile, a rickety dock, a houseboat with years of growth on its hull and a worn “Paul’s crab” sign lying on the ground next to a few broken traps.
Also among the recent departed: Bob Anderson, whom Grala said he met in jail. Anderson rented the dock from Grala, where he lived and set up a business selling nautical and island-related souvenirs and trinkets. He had decorated a wooden fence with a hodgepodge of paintings, mirrors and wall hangings that brought a warm feeling of old Florida.
“People used to stop just to take pictures of that fence,” said Dan Retting, who collects $1 from vehicles passing through the bridge toll booth. “There’s no more nostalgia out here. Just us old folks. It’s boring.”
Now, all that is left of the historic fishing village is Mezey’s mess, the toll booth and its maintenance buildings (on land donated by Mezey’s parents), the open-air Alabama Jack’s (which attracts hordes of tourists and motor bikers by day but closes at night when the mosquitoes take over), marine debris and three well-maintained camps that are privately owned, but on submerged state land without authorization.
“We are the last of the Mohicans,” said Albert Rousseau, who was enjoying a cocktail on his camp’s dock as his brother fished and two other guests got ready for Fourth of July fireworks.
Three years ago, Rousseau bought the 200-square-foot camp (which is called a utility building by the property appraiser) with air conditioning, tiled floors, electricity, DirectTV and the dock for $15,000, with the sale recorded by the county.
The other two camps still standing are brothers Richard and Robert Hoog’s place — which has been in their family for more than 50 years — and Mark Fraleigh’s green stilt house, built in 1998 and valued at $112,000 in 2006 by the county appraiser. All have paid county taxes, albeit for their structures only and not the land. Two have even paid solid waste assessments on their taxes. And all three have fought to keep their camps, although Fraleigh is now two years behind on his taxes.
“Yeah, I’m fighting it,” said Rousseau, who was told by the state Department of Environmental Protection that he must remove his structure and dock. “If they knew they were going to get rid of everybody, why would the county let the sale go through?”
And Rousseau, who owns an aluminum specialty business in Homestead and uses the camp as a vacation getaway, added: “Why do they want to wipe everything out? They’ll be no village, no fishing, no historic Card Sound fishing village. Why are they opposed to trying to find a program to bring the nostalgia back? There ain’t nothing between Miami and Key Largo that has any kind of character like this place had at one time.”
It all began more than a century ago when the Miami Motor Club lobbied for a road from the mainland to the Upper Keys to provide winter tourists with access to a suburban fishing ground. In 1928, the road was completed with a wooden swing bridge for boat traffic and a new roadside canal created by the dredging.
Capt. Earl Smith soon found it a great place to start a shrimp business during the Great Depression. It led to the state issuing temporary licenses for fishing camps in the 1930s, just as the feds did for hunting camps in Everglades National Park. The area evolved into affordable, and in many cases free, housing and dockage space for hardscrabble fishermen ekeing out a living, for transient people just trying to survive or for weekenders who wanted to enjoy the natural beauty.
By the 1950s it was big enough to accommodate four bars and restaurants — Smitty’s Place (named after the captain), Bob and Lou’s, Fred’s Place and Alabama Jack’s Fishing Camp.
With the influx of people, remote location, lack of oversight by government agencies and “lawless” atmosphere, there were plenty of fights, drug use, illegal fishing and some poaching going on. The once-pristine environment and home to the endangered American Crocodile and West Indian Manatee also was getting trashed.
There were government efforts dating to the 1950s to deal with the illegal building and environmental damage being done to the area, but they stalled for lack of political will and funding.
All that began to change in 2004, when John Ricisak, a supervisor with the compliance/enforcement department of the Environmental Resources Management in Miami-Dade, visited the area to check out a complaint about illegal cutting of mangroves.
“I can only describe it as completely out of control,” Ricisak recently said. “There were dozens of abandoned boats, all sorts of illegal structures over the water, none of which were dealing with sewage and other kinds of waste. It was a disaster from both an environmental and public safety standpoint and a real eye-opener for me.”
Ricisak led a multi-year, multi-agency effort that included many volunteers to clean up the Miami-Dade portion. They removed 70 derelict vessels, with another 35 to 40 boats taken out of the area by their owners after being tracked down by a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation officer. They also removed about 170 gallons of waste fuel and fuel-contaminated water, 1,043 derelict traps, about 18,800 square feet of illegal and abandoned overwater structures, at least a ton of waste tires, at least two dozen lead-acid batteries and tons of other marine debris, according to a summary report of the project. The cost: about $340,000, paid for by federal, state and local funds.
“We made a poster of all the illegal toilets we encountered down there,” Ricisak said. “And we pulled out everything under the sun, from washing machines, air conditioners, batteries, car and truck engines. You name it. TV sets, gill nets and all kinds of illegal fishing gear. And a lot of Santeria paraphernalia.”
He also is the first to say: “Not everybody was supportive of what we did. We ticked off some people. But I laugh when people say we destroyed the last vestiges of Old Florida down there. Maybe it was 50 to 80 years ago, but it was no longer true with the abuses that were going on there.”
Ricisak and his staff check the area periodically to make sure it stays pristine. While there is no formal study, Ricisak said he has noticed that sea grass and mangroves are growing back and there no longer are oil sheens.
Monroe County’s part of the village was much smaller, starting at the bend just north of Alabama Jack’s and extending to the bridge less than half a mile away. Two abandoned structures on submerged state land were removed in June at a cost of $12,000 that was funded by the state DEP’s Division of State Lands.
DEP has begun the “compliance assistance stage of enforcement” on the properties owned by Rousseau and Fraleigh, according to written answers provided by state DEP spokesperson Terry Cerullo.
“Hey, I understand they don’t want sunken boats and the sewage and all that stuff in the water,” Rousseau said. “I don’t either.”
Rousseau showed the 100-gallon holding tank he has for waste water, which he says is pumped out about once a month. He said he and his brother snorkeled the canal, removing 650 bottles and 13 tires.
“I should be able to enjoy my camp as long as I’m doing the right thing,” he said, adding that U.S. Customs and Border Protection use his property to place surveillance cameras on the canal.
Rousseau also said that he’d donate his camp to be used by researchers or disabled veterans groups. He added that Fraleigh’s stilt home with five docks could also be put to good public use.
Cerullo stated that DEP is aware of the Hoogs’ property — which has been there for decades — and is currently investigating it to determine whether it was built there without authorization.
It is next to the property line of Mezey, who did not know exactly where her land began and ended.
“Who owns that dock?” Mezey asked while looking at the 30-foot stretch of deteriorated wood sloping into the water next to a boat with years of thick marine growth covering its hull.
“You do,” Cutie said.
“Me again? I win,” Mezey said with sarcasm. “Wow.”
The first time Mezey went to see the property and inform the people using it that they would have to leave, Cutie went with her — and they brought along a deputy and sergeant.
“We expected there would be resistance,” Cutie said.
But it turned out that even Grala Sr. went quietly. “Well, it’s not to my liking,” he said.
Grala, 69, said he has lived since the ’70s at that location, where he raised six of his children and stepchildren, ran a commercial blue crab and fishing business from docks that he built and made side money charging others “fees” to use those docks.
Grala said he had a verbal deal with Viola Gautier to use the property: “She said you’re not bothering anybody, but I’m not giving you a lease because it’s a liability.”
And when he was told years earlier by code enforcement that he had to leave, he said he made a couple phone calls to politically connected people to whom he sold blue crabs to make his problem go away. It also helped that his third wife worked for the county, as a toll booth attendant.
“It could be stopped again,” he said after moving to the Redlands. “But I won’t do it. I don’t want to cause this lady any problems. She just got caught in the middle of the thing she had no knowledge of.”
Grala, a Vietnam vet who returned to South Florida to become a commercial fishermen, talked for two hours about his life at Card Sound, a place he first visited when he was about 11, and the people who lived there.
“I learned to swim and build boats at Fred’s Place,” he said. “Jack Stratham owned Alabama Jack’s. I took his ashes out on my boat.”
And he told the story of how Hurricane Donna in 1960 moved Fred’s Place from one side of the road to the other, leaving it sunk.
“We went down there with a telephone pole that the telephone company gave us and jacked it up,” Grala said. “Most people never realized it actually was a house boat with the side cut out. It originally was about 30 feet, but they added things here and there to make it bigger.”
Those days are long gone.
Rousseau said he would like to see the restoration of some of the original feeling of the place. “They don’t have to kill everything,” he said. “They could allow kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. If they get rid of everything, this will be nothing but a road to Ocean Reef [a luxury community in northern Key Largo].
For Mezey, once her property is cleaned up, she said she would like to donate it to the state, along with two other parcels in the area that she inherited.
“I wanted my mother to do that for 10 years,” she said. “I’m going to name it for my father if they would do it: The John Gautier Aquatic Preserve. It sounds good to me. He loved the Keys.”