Commissioners not vacating county's claim to historic Mamie Street in Chokoloskee

SCOTT MCINTYRE/STAFF
'We're going to beat this,' said Noel Hollister, left, as she hugged Lynn McMillin at the Collier County Commission chambers on Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014 after the commission board voted to not vacate the street, sending the case to court. Chokoloskee Island residents had a large presence in the commission chambers to oppose a vote that would finalize a settlement in a 2011 lawsuit the county and the store's owners filed against Florida Georgia Grove LLP after it bulldozed the road and erected a fence, blocking access to the historic store, its museum and nearby homes. The board voted 5-0 to not vacate Mamie St., which makes the case head to trial.

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SCOTT MCINTYRE/STAFF "We're going to beat this," said Noel Hollister, left, as she hugged Lynn McMillin at the Collier County Commission chambers on Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014 after the commission board voted to not vacate the street, sending the case to court. Chokoloskee Island residents had a large presence in the commission chambers to oppose a vote that would finalize a settlement in a 2011 lawsuit the county and the store's owners filed against Florida Georgia Grove LLP after it bulldozed the road and erected a fence, blocking access to the historic store, its museum and nearby homes. The board voted 5-0 to not vacate Mamie St., which makes the case head to trial.

Video from NBC-2

After a public outcry, Collier commissioners voted Tuesday not to vacate its claim to a public right of way on Mamie Street, allowing the county, the owners of the historic Ted Smallwood Store and others to head to trial.

All 21 public speakers on the subject opposed vacating the Chokoloskee Island road, which the county has maintained for about 70 years. Once a Seminole Indian trading post and general store, the 108-year-old nonprofit store is on the National Register of Historic Places and the street predates Collier County’s incorporation in 1923.

Vacating the claim to a right of way was a condition of a settlement to end a 2011 lawsuit the store and county filed against Florida Georgia Grove LLP, which bulldozed the road and erected a fence, blocking access to the store, its museum and nearby mobile homes. The street bisects FGG’s property.

"My direction from the board is to take this to the bitter end," County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow said after the vote. "We spent a lot of resources on this and ... I expect we will prevail."

Klatzkow said a trial would only be averted if the store’s owners approached the county again with another settlement proposal. The county and store have a strong likelihood of winning because a circuit judge agreed they were likely to prevail at trial and granted them a temporary injunction that ordered FGG to restore the road.

Store owner Lynn McMillin cried after the vote, admitting she was scared. "It’s still in jeopardy," McMillin said of the street. "It was comforting to see people cared and they were willing to take the time to speak."

She called FGG’s actions, including blocking store parking, access to a fire hydrant, bulldozing the road and erecting a fence "underhanded."

Like many, she doesn’t trust FGG, which has a history of code enforcement violations since paying the Seminole Indians $1.23 million for the land. Among them are disturbing a sacred Indian burial ground and removing mangroves.

FGG lawyer Steve Chase couldn’t be reached for comment afterward.

The settlement would have given the store access to Mamie Street, but allowed FGG to move the street’s southern end, below Chokoloskee Drive, to the east and build a 16-foot-wide paved access road for the store. That relocation is what upset many intent on preserving history.

Attorney Dick Grant, who represents Lynn and Gary McMillin, told commissioners they want to avoid trial and suggested postponing a vote so everyone, including a nearby mobile home park, could work toward a settlement. But he urged commissioners to listen to everyone’s concerns — and that’s what tipped the scales.

"This is more than just vacating a street," Jack Shealy, a fourth-generation Everglades City resident, told commissioners. "… I don’t want to see one of the oldest roads in Collier County moved for the sake of development."

Capt. Herb Kehoe, a Mamie Street resident with a charter boat business, said he wants to protect the road and Parkway Village mobile home park. "I assumed it was my road," Kehoe said. "Without that road, I’m out of business."

McMillin cried as she told commissioners how the store lost money due to FGG, including revenues and more than $100,000 in legal fees.

"Why does everyone want to settle?" she asked rhetorically. "The Smallwood Store is in no position financially to oppose it. I hope you will see the issue here is greater than a road and it is for the survival of history in Collier County, the Smallwood Store."

Gary McMillin, who operates Smallwood Store Boat Tows, said a sheriff’s deputy had to restrain him when FGG tore up the road. He contended if FGG did that Naples, they would have been locked up. "I feel like Collier County has let us down big time," he said.

FGG’s original intent was to build a boat launch and marina, but the store’s need for an access road halted that.

The store is taking donations to help fund its legal battle. To help, go to: www.smallwoodstore.com

■ In other business, commissioners voted 3-1, with Donna Fiala dissenting and Fred Coyle absent, to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General, asking for a review of an outside audit by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP that found commingling of funds, undocumented expenditures and other irregularities by nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone Inc. Millionaire John Barlow, who owns HOME, unsuccessfully ran against Collier Court Clerk Dwight Brock in 2012. The audit shows HOME received $621,904 in funding and balked at providing documentation.

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