Web-Exclusive: The Survey SWAT Team
January 21, 2003, 6:50 a.m., Miami, Fla.-Two licensed Miami surveyors were surrounded by heavily armed black clad SWAT team police officers in the Homestead Bay Front Park briefing room. Thankfully they weren’t the targets. They were representing a new faction in the profession-the Survey SWAT Team.
Investigation BackgroundThis story began a few weeks prior to January 21, when an anonymous informant reported a possible encroachment into Miami’s Biscayne National Park. The Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) investigated and confirmed that a new island was recently created from filled rock material in the bay away from the mangrove-covered shoreline. The new island was connected to a recently vacated-but not abandoned-recreational vehicle (RV) campsite cut through the dense mangrove forest by an expensive and lengthy wooden bridge. Workers were still working on the construction of the bridge when the investigation began.
When investigators first approached the campsite, they immediately suspected an entry point for illegal drugs. Sensing danger, the investigators left the scene and called the authorities to secure the area and investigate the possible environmental violations before moving forward with the investigation.
Determining BoundariesThe next step in the investigation process required proving boundary lines for the island. The investigators needed to know precisely where the violations occurred in comparison to property lines. In order to do so, the Survey SWAT team was called in.
The Survey SWAT Team, consisting of two licensed surveyors (myself and my assistant, Jose L. Sanfiel) and a four-member survey field crew, was provided with photos, campsite sketches and background searches on the laborers working on the property. A search of the public records of the adjacent property revealed a name but was thought to be fictitious and provided little survey information. We looked up property and plat information, both of which dated back to 1909 and provided little information. Finally, we found the plat of Burger King World Headquarters to the south, Plat 127-86, which aided us in determining the south line of the property. The back and north lines, however, were still in question. Researching further, our team found some information showing approximate distances where the National Park Service had acquired land along the coastline. We were concerned about the lack of information, but was assured that they would soon receive additional information from the lead cartographer for the National Park Service, Richard Gill.
The Briefing RoomTo discuss the next step of the investigation, a meeting was held at the Homestead Bay Front Park briefing room promptly at 7:00 a.m.. David Pharo, a law enforcement specialist with the National Park Service, introduced all of the attendees, including personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the County Department of Environmental Resource Management, the Miami-Dade Police Department, Professional Surveyors Michael J. Whitling and Sanfiel from the Miami-Dade County Survey Section, and other National Park Service law enforcement.
Pharo discussed the numerous perceived violations, which included wetland destruction, mangrove damage and sea grass damage-all on federal land. The property in question bordered Biscayne Bay. Plans were made for the National Park Service law enforcement, along with members of the Miami-Dade County Police Force, to enter the property first to clear the area of possible dangerous people. Soon after, the Survey SWAT Team would approach the property to determine what could be torn down based on property lines.
The entire briefing lasted about 45 minutes. Our team was provided with background information on the island as well as specific instructions on how to enter the property and locate the boundaries in a timely manner. Upon leaving the briefing room, Sanfiel and I were left with one concern: with insufficient survey data and without having ever stepped foot on the site, how quickly could our team determine the property lines?
Despite this concern, the “let’s go” order was given, and out the door we went, fully armed and ready. Meanwhile, a Miami-Dade County Survey crew was en route to the alleged crime scene.
Site InvestigationWe reached the site around 8:15 a.m. The area was covered with police cars, SWAT trucks and uniformed officers. The area had a bit of a clearing in the front, but dense mangroves covered the majority of the land. Sanfiel and I located our survey crew talking to the man with the much-needed information-Richard Gill. Gill had with him two surveys-one of the property in question, and another showing the national park boundary line. Now we had our ammunition to begin our investigation.
At 8:44 a.m., some of the non-survey SWAT team members emerged from the back of the property with assault guns in hand and ammo belts strapped to their chests. After investigating the grounds, the SWAT team deemed the area abandoned. Therefore, it was time for the Survey SWAT Team to step in.
Our team’s first move was to situate ourselves (and our equipment) toward the back of the property. As we moved they came face to face with two new luxury RVs and a large travel trailer-all surrounded by a beautiful deck. Along the edge of the elaborate deck was a two-foot high fence made of plexiglass and wood. Further into the property were large cages resembling those at a zoo, with what appeared to be bird stands inside. The decking continued deep into the mangroves and was attached to a 330-foot-long elevated walkway leading directly to the bay. At the end of the walkway stood the island.
A Mysterious Property9:08 a.m.: We began locating the monumentation shown on the national park survey; the monumentation was found by an old concrete seawall shown on Gill’s survey. We recovered two survey monuments on the back line, and then we were up and running. With each step of the way, it became more and more apparent that the perpetrators had indeed encroached on national park property. However, the Survey SWAT Team still needed to determine where exactly the line crossed the property. The team was baffled by the property because it looked as if nothing had been built on private property. Therefore, they had nothing to connect the work to an adjacent private landowner.
We had a survey of the property where the perpetrators gained access to the campsite, however, it wasn’t very clear, especially where the surveyor had shown a fence along the south line of the property. In actuality, the fence was 100 feet south of the property line. The fence was used by the property owner as a basis for the south property line, albeit mistakenly. There were no ties to the fence, but graphically, it appeared to be very close to the property line on the map. Additionally, the initial survey failed to show any wetlands; therefore, in addition to the encroachments on other properties, the perpetrators encroached 300 feet into wetlands (although the mangroves should have given them some clue).
All of this information was significant to our work, however, we soon recalled that we were here as the Survey SWAT Team on behalf of the National Park Service. For the time being, the authorities were only interested in finding out just how much of the adjacent landowner’s structures were on federal property.
Environmental Destruction10:30 a.m.: As we set up to turn the final angle to obtain the boundary line, we noticed several men gearing up with chain saws. The line, we discovered, fell a few feet west of the entrance steps to the deck, determining that the entire structure was indeed on national park property. We then proceeded to place stakes across the line, and within one second of planting the last stake, the chain saws started up. The group of men from the National Park Service began sawing the deck in order to tow the trailers and RV.
The Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management also had agents on the site who were amazed at the amount of environmental destruction. The agents asked the Survey SWAT Team to locate the entire deck all of the mangroves and wetlands, and the island. While we completed this last task of the day, we discovered that the perpetrators had run their own sewer line to a septic tank-all on wetlands. Needless to say, this violation added to the long list of illegal actions.
Unraveling the CluesAfter the encroachment, park personnel were worried that increasing visits to the site would exacerbate damage to the mangroves and shallow sea grass beds along the shore. Park Superintendent Linda Canzanelli recently ordered almost half of the park’s staff to work a three-day blitz removing the 330-foot boardwalk and planting 400 to 500 young mangroves in its place. “Protecting the mangroves is such a critical concern,” Canzanelli says. “The trees shelter small prey that is a crucial part of Biscayne Bay’s food chain.”
It turned out that the person responsible for the mangrove destruction was listed in Miami-Dade County property records as a woman. The county has since seized her property and sold it to the city of Palmetto Bay for the creation of a park. The fines for her encroachment totaled more than a million dollars. To date, the police have not been able to locate her.