DOWNTOWN CARD SOUND -- A five-year multi-agency effort to rid the Card Sound Bridge area of illegal dwellings and derelict boats has transformed a roadside shantytown into a ghost town.
On any Sunday now the only sounds besides the vibration of tires from an occasional passing car come from the landmark Alabama Jack's watering hole where line dancing is still the highlight of the week for revelers from south Miami-Dade County and the Keys.
To hardscrabble fishermen and crabbers who have spent their life at the Card Sound Fishing Village, it is the end of an era. To others, it is all about saving the environment.
John Ricisak, environmental resources project supervisor for the Dade Environmental Resources Management -- the lead agency in the five-year cleanup -- says more than 100 derelict boats have been removed at a taxpayer cost in excess of $140,000.
"We removed 68 boats from along Card Sound Road with a combined total of 1,500 feet in length," he told the Free Press Monday. "[Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] Officer Frank de la Torre tracked down 30 or 40 owners of derelict boats and had them remove the boats under threat of arrest. There were some arrests as well. Many of those boats were intentionally dumped in the mangroves."
Between 600 and 700 gallons of waste fuel, about six dozen lead acid batteries and 1,053 abandoned crab and lobster traps also have been removed, Ricisak said.
"Some were like the 'Hotel California,' ghost traps still catching crabs that could never leave," he said.
Ricisak said that, through diligence and help from the public, Card Sound Road will not be trashed again.
"The era of people going down there and abusing the environment is over. What we saw down there boggles the mind," he said.
"People have mixed feelings about the area being cleaned up, saying this is one of the last vestiges of old Florida, that we are removing a piece of history. But the only motivation was to clean up something that had gotten so out of hand and disgusting that we could no longer ignore it."
Paul Grala Jr., 39, who lives on a houseboat with his father, Paul Sr., 63, and step-mother Dorothy, 63, said the cleanup of the fishing village began several years ago.
"It all started when Florida Power Light discovered there were 13 people who had tapped into the lines and were stealing electricity," Grala said. "The old timers kept the place clean, paid taxes and worked hard, but the new ones came in and left derelict boats, oil in the water and trash everywhere."
Paul Sr., who grew up in the fishing village, says the trouble began about a dozen years ago when Miami-Dade County officials cleaned up squatters and houseboats along the Miami River.
"Those people all moved here and brought their derelict boats and trash with them," he said. "They generally didn't give a damn."
An Alabama Jack's bartender said the last derelict boat was hauled out in November.
"They put a Dumpster out, but no one used it," he said while serving up drinks to a small crowd last week. "They just threw trash in the mangroves."
Monroe, Dade and state officials charged with protecting the environment and people's health have been cracking down on code violations since March 2005.
"For several years we have been investigating this area," said Gus Rios, the Monroe County manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "We've been putting together case reports for over two years. We're giving people the chance to come forward.
"We're going to begin putting the emphasis on the Monroe County side of the toll booth," he said. "All of the indications are the 10 or so structures on the Monroe County side are on submerged land. I don't think they have a county permit."
According to Bill Brookman, environmental health supervisor for the Monroe County Health Department, all residences along the road must meet Florida Administrative Code requirements, which includes a permitted sewage system. Alabama Jack's has the only permitted sewage system, he said.
The Gralas, however, are trying to hang on to their houseboat and slip of land.
"They're trying to get us out, but we've found the owners of the land. They own 22 acres, including bay bottom," said Paul Jr. "The government thought they owned this land, but they don't. Viola Gautier owned the land. She died last year and her heirs have it tied up in court."
Paul Sr. said he is the steward for the Gautier estate.
"This is my life. I raised my kids here," he said. "If I have to leave here I'll go out of the country, because there's no place like this left in this country. I just want to work for a living and live the way I want to live.
"The cleaning up needed to be done, but they don't have to wipe out the fishing village."