In the chaos that followed Hurricane Andrew, the Miami-Dade County school district put a fence around an empty plot of land abutting an elementary school in Perrine.
The district didn't own the land. It never has. But the school system used it for 20 years without paying the property owners – a family of long-time Miamians and, more recently, a school district employee.
Now, a jury has decided the district must remove the fence and pay more than $200,000 in back-rent.
It’s a tangled legal case spanning two lawsuits, two decades and many plot twists — family disputes, haggling over land value, a lawyer’s disbarment and questions about how his romantic interest wound up with partial ownership of the parcel in South Miami-Dade.
For the property owners, the two-decade saga is about average folks fighting a massive system: the Miami-Dade school district, the fourth largest in the country.
“We have been taken advantage of because the school fenced in our property without our authorization, and they didn’t pay anything,” said Thomas Rolle, 74, son of the man who first purchased the land. “They figured they had it and they wanted it, so they were just going to run roughshod.”
School district officials tell the story differently. They have been willing to pay for the land all along and more than one agreement was drawn up to buy the plot. But it proved impossible to negotiate a reasonable price — family disagreements may have played a role — or to even prove who really owned the land.
“We were a willing buyer all the way, and for fair market value we would have purchased it,” said assistant school board attorney Jeff James.
Like so many black immigrants before him, McMurdie Rolle came from the Bahamas and settled in Coconut Grove. He married, had nine children and went about providing for them by opening his own businesses. Rolle started a grocery store, a wood cutting yard and a landscaping business, said one of his sons, Alfred Rolle.
“He worked hard,” Alfred said. “Him and his kids worked hard cutting wood, selling wood and cutting yards, and putting down sod.”
With the money he made, Alfred’s father bought land from Perrine to Coconut Grove and Liberty City. On some parcels, he built houses and sold them. Others, he put in the names of his many children.
That’s how three brothers — Alfred, James and Thomas — came to own about a third of an acre in Perrine. It was about 40 years ago that they inherited the corner lot, and 20 years ago that they lost control of it in a confusing series of events set off by Hurricane Andrew.
Andrew leveled the southern end of the county in 1992. A year later, the community was still clawing out of the wreckage and so was the Miami-Dade school district. As the district repaired Robert Russa Moton Elementary, a historic school practically leveled in the Category 5 storm, officials saw an opportunity to expand onto an abutting, vacant lot while contractors were already on the ground.
The lot belonged to the Rolle brothers. An agenda item was quickly drafted for school board members to approve the purchase of their land for $12,500. The item passed, but Thomas Rolle said his family balked at the proposed buying price.
Then, a chain link fence appeared around the property.
“They just railroaded us because they’re big and strong. They figure they can do what they want to do,” Thomas said.
School board documents show an emergency agenda item was passed to allow “grading, sodding and fencing” to continue at the site even as the district worked to finalize the sale of the land. In the meantime, the school system was to pay $300 for its use. James, the school board attorney, said both the proposed purchase and the fencing were negotiated with a representative of the Rolle family.
Apparently that representative wasn’t Thomas. He said the family never agreed to the fencing, and the deal to sell the property grew cold when the two sides couldn’t agree on a price. He said his family never saw a dime and court records confirm that.
But the fence remained. It would stand for two decades.
“Why would you enclose somebody’s property and you don’t own it? You didn’t pay rent on it. You didn’t buy it,” Thomas said.
Though Thomas said his family repeatedly asked for the fence to come down, their requests eventually stopped for reasons no one can quite explain. Their land became a play field for little children at recess.
Thomas went on with his job as a salesman for Campbell Soup. James eventually died. All the while Alfred took care of the property taxes every year. He kept up with the bill until the 1990s, when he retired from the Miami Herald after running the newspaper presses for 35 years. On a fixed income, Alfred said he could no longer afford the taxes and they went into arrears.
Things get complicated around 2004, when the Rolles finally hired an attorney to help take back their land.
The attorney, Cornelius Shiver, sued the school board. He drafted a settlement agreement for $35,000. The school board seemed amenable — eager, even — to pay. But the settlement fell through because school board attorneys couldn’t get documentation that made them feel comfortable about who really owned the land.
“The biggest issue hanging over this case was the title issue,” said school board attorney Walter Harvey.
In February 2004, Shiver’s then-romantic interest — Constance Gilbert, who works at a district-run center for teen parents — came to own a majority stake in the property. Gilbert, according to court records, has held joint bank accounts with Shiver and owned land with him. How she came to own the Rolles’ land is disputed by at least one of the brothers.
A quitclaim deed shows both surviving brothers, Alfred and Thomas, signed over their land.
Thomas said Gilbert paid to get the property tax bill up to date and she may have paid the Rolles an additional, undisclosed sum of money, according to her lawyer. But in a phone call with the Miami Herald, Alfred said he never agreed to sell to Gilbert and that he did not sign any deed.
“They’re taking my property from me,” Alfred said. “I didn’t sign any paperwork.”
Through her lawyer, Gilbert declined to comment.
The legal case only became more difficult. In 2005, the state of Florida banned Shiver from practicing law after he failed to pay child support and then “deliberately tried to mislead the bar” about practicing law while he was ineligible.
Once again, the Rolles’ case languished until November 2014, when Gilbert hired a new lawyer. The issue of who owns the land had to be settled in probate court, and the landowners filed suit against the school district again with attorney Charles Gibson representing them.
“I couldn’t believe it until I started looking into the documents,” Gibson said. “It just seemed too fantastic that this would have gone on, and at a minimum they should have removed the fence when asked about it.”
In court, school board attorneys argued that the district was entitled to the land through Florida’s adverse possession laws. Basically, the district argued, the land was abandoned so they took it and now owned it.
James said the district was merely defending itself, and eventually it dropped that claim. Attorneys were once again ready to settle, but once again, the two sides couldn’t agree on a price. The landowners wanted $800,000.
“That’s not fair,” James said.
So it went to trial. After about a year-long legal process, a judge ordered the fence to finally be removed and awarded landowners $215,000 in back-rent to be split between Gilbert and the estate of James Rolle, the brother who passed away.
“I don’t think it was ever about the money. I think they always just wanted them to remove the fence,” Gibson said. “And I think it was a slap in the face where they kept getting taxed on it and they kept getting the run around why the fence wasn’t removed.”
Court records show the fence has finally come down, and payment was delivered by FedEx.