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Fight for local preserve pays off 50 years later

Florida’s first aquatic preserve, Estero Bay Preserve Park, wasn’t always conserved land. Estero residents Bill and Pat Mellor, the couple responsible for creating the park, remember a time when the area was simply a source of food for them.

“We were living on the beach and had three kids,” Bill said. “My street that I lived on went straight down to the bay and I had a little boat that I could put in so I could go down to the end of the street, cross my boat, and get any kind of fish I want.”

Bill and Pat began fighting for the bay in the 1950’s, when a corporation out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin wanted to dredge the land and turn it into a city similar to Fort Lauderdale. Bill noticed that land surrounding other estuaries had been developed on, and didn’t want to see Estero Bay reach the same fate.

“These people had a lot of money and you couldn’t defeat them by simply saying, ‘gee whiz, they’re ruining my fishing,’” Bill said. “They don’t care about that, they want to make a lot of money.”

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Bill then got an attorney and did research on the corporation and learned that what they were doing was illegal.

Bill and Pat spent years driving to and from Tallahassee, speaking with then Attorney General of Florida Robert Shevin and several former governors about protecting the land.

“This thing went on for twenty years,” Pat said. “We fought them before the dedication of the aquatic preserve, then we had to fight the biggest battle after that.”

Pat said that the company who wanted to dredge the land worked tirelessly, fighting her and her husband every step of the way.

“They were continually working behind the scenes just like termites in the woodwork,” Pat said. “They didn’t pay attention to that aquatic preserve, they figured they could work around it, and they tried to.”

Pat said that they even fooled the governor into selling them part of the preserve.

Eventually, the Mellors formed the Lee County Conservation Association to assist them in keeping the bay free from development.

“Eventually we sued the governor and cabinet,” Pat said. “Now, the governor and cabinet change their hats every so often.”

Along the way, the Mellors received death threats and even had a telephone conversation phone-tapped.

After numerous calls inviting people to coffee with LCCA board member Roland Roberts, Pat found herself listening to two women whom she didn’t contact on the other line.

“I find two women talking, listening to my calls,” Pat said. “One says, ‘ooh, did you get that?’ and the other one says, ‘no, who was she talking to that time?’”

While they never found out who had hacked their phone line, the Mellors continued to receive backlash for their actions.

“People would say, ‘you can’t beat them’ and we would say, ‘by golly we can,’” Pat said.

Estero Bay Preserve Park was finally established in 1966, after a decade long fight.

“It was a hard fight, and you have to be persistent,” Pat said. “You can’t give up. When the going gets rough, you got to keep going.”

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