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Everglades tug-of-war comes to end

By John Zarrella
CNN

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. John Zarrella covered Jesse James Hardy's battle to keep his property for nearly two years.

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Jesse James Hardy tells CNN's John Zarrella that he prefers solitude to money.

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Behind the Scenes
Florida

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- You never know quite what to expect the first time you meet someone.

When that someone is an elderly man who has spent 32 years living essentially in the middle of nowhere, it's easy to assume his bubble is not quite on center. And when one of the first things he says to you is, "I don't want the damn money. Please, please take the money back," you really start to wonder. Because the money we're talking about is nearly $5 million.

I met Jesse James Hardy in 2004. When you leave Interstate 75 in Naples, Florida, you make your way first along paved highway through new developments and subdivisions. Eventually, the houses become spaced farther and farther apart until there are none at all and you enter a pine forest. The pavement gives way to dirt and rock. After a left, a right and another right, you are driving along a canal bank. A couple more miles up this gravel road with your dust trail behind you is an entrance cut through the pines and the cabbage palms.

At the end of the road is a shack, and standing on the porch is Hardy. He's got a scraggly beard. He's wearing a T-shirt and desert camo pants. In his youth, Hardy was in the Navy.

I'm not sure when I first figured it out, but it was pretty clear pretty quickly that Hardy was no dummy. At 68, his mind was sharp. He was in the fight of his life and he was spitting mad. Every sentence was laced with four-letter words aimed at the state of Florida. To make sure I understood who he was, Hardy said right out the box, "I'm not no recluse and I'm not no hermit." (Watch as Hardy explains why he loves the swamp --2:20)

Hardy's story has been well documented. Thirty-two years ago he bought 160 acres in Collier County for $60,000. Nobody wanted the property but him. The ground is rock. In summer, mosquitoes are thick enough to nearly blacken the sky. It's hot, miserable, surrounded by nothing for miles, and Jesse Hardy loves it.

Problem was the state of Florida decided it had to have Hardy's property for its $8 billion Everglades restoration plan. They called it the "hole in the donut." The restoration plan calls for flooding thousands of acres to restore the natural flow of water through the Everglades south to Florida Bay.

Using its eminent domain authority, the state ultimately forced Hardy to sell. But Hardy's fight lasted three years before his attorneys advised him to go ahead and settle. There was no way he could win.

There have been many people who questioned Hardy's sincerity, calling him "crazy like a fox." What amazed me the most was just how in tune with the world Hardy was for a man living in the middle of nowhere. His built-by-hand shack had the Internet, satellite TV (to watch CNN, he said), a generator, propane tanks for running utilities. Every time I've been out to his Everglades home, Jesse made it a point to show me just how modern his life was.

And this life, Jesse always said, was all he wanted. He didn't want the money, never wanted to take it he said because now, at 70 years old, he doesn't know what he'll do with it. When he talks about his age and the money, Hardy is flat-out funny.

"I quit the cigarettes and the pina coladas. And I'm to the point, agewise, that the women ain't lookin' that brightly anymore, anyway. So, $4-1/2 million is not that important to me. They should have give that to me 30 or 40 years ago, and I would have been out of here!"

Now, he is out of there. He's left behind two ponds stocked with catfish. A couple of times we walked out to the ponds blasted out of the hard ground. He told me he wanted to open his property to folks who just wanted to come and spend the day and fish. That never happened.

Jesse James Hardy moved into his new $800,000 home this week. It sits on less than 3 acres of well-manicured lawn. Neighbors are within earshot. It is simply not the lifestyle Hardy wants. In fact, as we stood out front and looked at the concrete block house, Hardy said simply, "I don't want this place." And, he added, "I may just live out in the garage."

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