COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. -- The serene beauty of the Everglades was interrupted 50 years ago by a massive construction scam. Now it's slowly being returned to the treasure it once was. Though at a staggering cost.
"What we're trying to do here is bring the ecosystem as close as possible back to its original condition," said Michael Collis with the Army Corps of Engineers.
It's a project unlike anything else in the world. Deep in the Everglades, between I-75 and U.S. 41 is the Picayune Strand State Forest. Once, it was the largest planned community in the US, 55,000 acres called South Golden Gate Estates. Unsuspecting buyers were sold vacation properties.
"They would bring the people in during dry season when it was cool weather and sell the properties," said Janet Starnes, the project manager with the South Florida Water Management District.
"And then they wouldn't be here in the summer when the area would flood."
The housing project went belly up in the 1970s. Long after 260 miles of roads and four canals were built. 55,000 acres of pristine land was destroyed and many property owners thought they lost their investments.
In 1985, the state of Florida started buying the property back from 17,000 land owners. For years, WINK News covered the story of Jesse Hardy, the last person to sill own property. He eventually, though reluctantly, sold his home to the state for nearly $5 million.
The restoration project is spearheaded by the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The plan is actually quite simple. Crews will remove and degrade the roads then use those materials to plug the canals.
"Once that is done, mother nature will take over at that point and bring the environment back to its right condition," said Collis.
Though, it's obviously much easier said than done. In February, the water management district said the project would cost nearly $100 million more than originally anticipated. Pushing the cost up toward $620 million. Higher construction costs were blamed on the increase.
But some work has already been completed. One of the canals is plugged and native plants are starting to grow. One of three planned pump stations is gearing up to go online. The stations will control flooding in the developed portion of Golden Gate Estates, north of I-75.
"We're getting the quality, quantity and distribution of the water correct," Collis said.
The end goal is to remove any sign of the planned community and return this patch of the Everglades to what it once was.