Government Plots To Grab Homeowners' Private Properties In Florida

U.S. Forest Service

By Bryan Jung and W. Douglas Dechert

The Fifth Amendment has long stood in the way of the schemes of public officials. Since the early days of the republic, federal, state and local governments have felt the need to acquire the private property of citizens. This has spawned almost two centuries of eminent domain case law and precedent requiring reasonable grounds and just compensation for private land acquisitions. 


Inevitably, there has been a long arms race between essurious public servants and the people. Over the past 50 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pioneered a litany of highly contested but thus far effective "workarounds" for the deprivation of citizens' private property rights.

Recently, the EPA has unilaterally interpreted environmental regulations to designate any land near water as "wetlands" and thus decree that owners have no right to drain, build on, or improve their land. Affected landowners are left without compensation for the market diminution of their property values. (Woe to those with a soggy front lawn!)

Assiduous readers can easily research the legal and judicial morass that this bureaucratic overreach has led to so that new techniques have sprung up widely to effect the same purposes. A few weeks ago, it came to our attention that the U.S. Forest Service (an agency of the U.S. Department Of Agriculture) has found a new method of displacing defenseless homeowners.

The state of Florida is home to innumerable lakes and freshwater springs. One such thriving community of approximately 8,000 residents and scores of retail businesses catering to the tourist trade is the somewhat misleadingly named Salt Springs, near Ocala, in North-Central Florida.

According to Leigh Garrick, a Salt Springs resident, a representative of the Forest Service told her, "People in Salt Springs better start selling their homes now because prices will plummet when the springs close in January of 2025."

Word spread in January that American Land and Leisure, which manages the Salt Springs recreation area in Florida, was informed by the U.S. Forest Service that their contract to lease the area would not be renewed, with no official explanation for the eviction being given thus far.


Salt Springs is not the only spring in Florida that is being shut down or is undergoing an assessment by the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Visitors to springs like Silver Glen Springs, Blue Springs, and Three Sister Springs face similar treatment from federal authorities.

The shocked residents at Salt Springs started reaching out to the Forest Service for information upon hearing the news.

Andy and her husband Robert, also local residents, spoke to a Forest Service agent who told them they should "really think about it" when they said they were planning to buy property at the springs.

The official said that the Forest Service plans to make the springs only accessible to light paddle craft so they can turn the entire park into a manatee refuge.

If true, this means that all residents living on the resort grounds have only months to sell their homes and move or face evictions at a financial loss.

The attempted destruction of a local tourist area and the community that supports it without any explanation is a major red flag, say locals who are upset at this act of government overreach. 

After hearing the news from his neighbors, local resident James Dewar decided to contact Forestry official Eve Shackleton. Shackleton said that all correspondence regarding plans for Salt Springs was to go through Nicki Maxwell, the department's public affairs officer.

Responding to his email on February 20, Maxwell told Dewar that the Forest Service had no plans to close the Salt Springs recreation area but was only doing a conditions assessment for 2025, which required a partial closure of the grounds.


Dewar told Maxwell that it sounded rather contradictory and asked if she could clarify her statement to avoid confusion.

In response, the spokeswoman tried to obfuscate without fully answering Dewar and ended their initial correspondence with a promise to write back if she had additional information for him.

After weeks of repeated attempts to get further responses from Maxwell, Dewar filed a March 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Forest Service.

"Why doesn't the government have answers for why they want to shut down an operating community based on tourism draw? This is government gone wild," Dewar said.

In response to the FOIA request, Steve Watkins, Maxwell's supervisor, wrote Dewar on April 1 that he would personally handle his first two questions but that Maxwell would answer the remaining 18 questions. Maxwell's failure to answer his inquiry had led him to file his request in the first place.

When the Forest Service finally answered the FOIA request, it listed case law explaining why it could not answer most of his questions. 

"Each question had case law attached to it as to why they won't do it," said Dewar.

The only question that the two would answer said that a copy of the original report used to determine the closure of the spring did not exist.

Watkins informed Dewar that no reports were gathered prior to making the decision, as the "USDA cannot be forced to generate copies of reports that do not already exist." 

"They responded that it was unreasonable to ask them to generate a report where no report exists," he said.


It could be thought that the lack of official documentation regarding something like a land grab would violate standard administrative practice.

"I immediately came back to them and said, if no report exists, then you're telling me that you basically make arbitrary decisions at the USDA and that you don't do any due diligence. So I basically said, if this is true, this is gonna be newsworthy in sleepy Ocala," added Dewar.

After the FOIA request was filed, Marion County Commissioner Carl Zalak soon repeated the government's claim on the Friends of Salt Springs Facebook page in April that the Forest Department had no plans to close the recreation area but were only banning swimming, boating, camping, and RVs, rendering it practically unusable. 

Meanwhile, Dewar eventually discovered that Maxwell had looked at his LinkedIn profile after he emailed her about whether she could officially confirm Zalak's statements.

When he decided to look up Maxwell on LinkedIn in response, Dewar was shocked to see that she was not actually employed by the Forest Service but by the U.S. Department of the Interior and Land Management and with the U.S. Navy in Guantanamo Bay since 2020, which suggested that she had a top security clearance.

Strangely enough, Dewar further discovered that her boss, Watkins, also happened to be a 20-year military legal veteran and a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, which allows him to practice in front of the Supreme Court, but at least he was employed by the Agriculture Department.

"These are pretty heavy hitters for a FOIA request," noted Dewar, adding, "I would think a FOIA request person would be like a secretary that just researches the information you're looking for, but instead, they've got really trained people ready to basically deny all FOIA requests."


"They all have emails that say Her cell phone has an address in Tallahassee, but her LinkedIn says she's based in Guantanamo Bay or she's based in Wyoming and that Steve is based in Atlanta," he said.

Our attempts to reach her for comment have gone unanswered over the last six days. So much for transparency.

According to the law, frightening homeowners about imminent government decrees to threaten their nest eggs used to be known as "blockbusting."

This might be time to lawyer up.


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