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In August 1963, Julio Concepcion and four others held on to a fire extinguisher to stay afloat after their boat sank seven miles off the waters of Mariel, Cuba. A year earlier, Concepcion had fled Cuba with more than 20 family members, but his mother had not made it out. Now he was back to sneak onto the island nation, find his mother, and bring her to the U.S. to freedom. For 17 hours Concepcion and his friends held on for their lives after their boat sank before reaching the Cuban coast. One friend died at sea, but Concepcion, then 23, made it ashore and found his mother. He went into hiding for more than a week and repaired an old 17-foot wooden motor boat, which he used to escape again from Castro’s communist Cuba — this time with his mother. Now, almost 40 years later, Concepcion says he is in another struggle for freedom. This time it is not against Cuba, but the United States government. The fight is over a patch of unincorporated Miami-Dade County land adjacent to Everglades National Park called the 8.5 Square Mile Area. Concepcion, who more than 10 years ago built a two-bedroom home in the 8.5 Square Mile Area, is trying to keep his home from being purchased by the government and condemned in the name of environmental protection. “Castro kicked me out of my home,” said Concepcion, who is married with two grown daughters. “Now, the U.S. government is trying to do the same thing.” Concepcion and his neighbors recently won in federal court. U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that the federal government lacked the authority under Everglades restoration legislation to force out the residents, but a potential move in Congress threatens to undo their victory. Political leaders may be treading lightly because the controversy has the potential to become a toxic fight in an election year. The dispute involves two important Florida constituencies: Cuban Americans and advocates for the environmental protection of the Everglades. A who’s-who of environmental groups — the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund among them — has lined up behind the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with implementing the Everglades restoration plan. “This project is a central part of overall Everglades restoration and, in fact, must be implemented before many other key restoration projects may move forward,” the groups said recently in a joint statement. But just last year, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which calls itself the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States, issued a resolution stating: “LULAC condemns any attempt to take the property of residents of the 8.5 Square Mile Area.” Citizens living in the community have organized into groups and retained attorneys. The 8.5 Square Mile Area Legal Defense Foundation has retained Hunton & Williams as counsel. The firm, which has an office in Miami, is working for the citizens group on a pro bono basis. Virginia Albrecht, a partner in the firm’s Washington office represents the residents. Many of the residents hope the fight in Congress this fall will be their last. If they win in Washington, “it would appear we are out of the woods,” said Alice Pe�a, president of a group called the United Property Owners of 8.5 Square Mile Area, “and could live in peace and get on with our lives.” The predominantly Cuban-American community in the 8.5 Square Mile Area consists of about 320 homes. The residents are fighting plans supported by both the state and federal governments that call for the construction of a levee and seepage canal to be run through the community. That will impact, residents say, about one-third of the community’s homes. The plan aims to improve the flow of fresh water into the Everglades and from there into Florida Bay. The plan is part of the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act, which was signed by President George Bush in 1989 and seeks to “enhance and restore the ecological values and natural hydrological condition” of the Everglades. But residents of the small community refuse to budge and denounce any efforts by the government to purchase homes and flood the community as heavy-handed and based on junk science. In a big win for the residents, Moore ruled last month that the Army Corps of Engineers does not have authority under current law to go forward with its plan in the 8.5 Square Mile Area. The judge found that the Corps’ original mandate from Congress was to keep the community intact. But residents still can’t breathe easy. There is the possibility that the legislators will amend the Department of Interior appropriations bill when the Senate reconvenes Sept. 4, giving the Corps of Engineers authority to go ahead with its plan. Both U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson are in favor of the Corps’ plan. Asked whether Graham will insert an amendment into the Interior Department’s appropriations, his spokesperson, said, “We’re looking at all options.” The fact that Graham is considering such action comes as no surprise to some of the community’s biggest defenders. “Sen. Graham has lobbied for the destruction of our community since the time he became a senator,” said Madeleine Fortin, head of a group called the 8.5 Square Mile Area Legal Defense Foundation Inc. “I keep thinking we’ve fought our last battle. A federal judge ruled the plan was illegal. But they continue on with this, they won’t let it die,” said Fortin. Residents say they are taking their case to Congress. According to Pe�a of United Property Owners of 8.5 Square Mile Area, “intense lobbying” is under way and “many things are under discussion.” She named U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, as one of the group’s biggest supporters. Diaz-Balart did not return calls to his Miami office. The residents have another powerful adversary in their quest to keep their homes, in addition to the two senators — Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports the Corps of Engineers plan. A June 13 letter from the South Florida Water Management District to the Army Corps of Engineers lays out the governor’s view, according to his spokesman. In the letter, the SFWMD reaffirms its support for the Corps plan, which, it says, “strikes a fair and needed balance between the interests of the landowners and the restoration of the Everglades ecosystem.” It goes on to say that the state wants to “reduce the density of 8.5 SMA and assist all willing sellers within the area to relocate.” Environmental groups, though, criticize Florida political leaders as soft on the area’s residents. The U.S. Rep. Norman D. Dicks, D-Wash., inserted an amendment into the House version of the Interior appropriations bill last month that gave the Corps authority to go ahead with its plan. But the amendment was removed from the measure, after Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, said it was “an abuse of federal power.” Florida legislators did nothing, prompting sharp comment from Shannon Estenoz, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition and director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Everglades Program. “We need someone with guts to stand up and tell this damn area to move,” she said.

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