ARIPEKA — Dean Grubb, whose friends call him Rambo, took a chain saw and a shovel and headed up Old Dixie Highway.
He stopped at the Sun West mine property, shoveled his way through a berm and started clearing a path through the woods. This started late last year.
When he got tired of leaving every night, he set up camp on the property and brought in a television set and a milk crate full of Popular Mechanic encyclopedias.
Mine owners and government officials call him nothing more than a squatter, albeit one handy with tools. But Grubb sees himself on a mission: Clearing what he thinks is a public easement across property that plays a role in the controversial SunWest Harbourtowne project.
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "If I'm 100 percent right, I argue to the teeth. I don't want to look like a Hee-Haw. I want to be right."
• • •
Grubb is 47, tan and wiry, a Michigan native and a four-year Navy veteran with long hair and a tendency in conversation to alternate between honorifics — "sir" and "ma'am" — and "dude."
A sartorial trademark is his red bandana, which he wears so often he gets tan lines on his forehead. A personality trademark is his friendliness; he loves to talk — especially about the thing that started him, literally, down this path.
Fifteen years ago, he began a quixotic and persistent campaign to claim land on Pasco County's coastline.
He first saw the land on a fishing trip. He saw dolphins in the water and an old fish shack on the shore and fell in love. He got curious about who owned it.
His initial findings: No one, at least no one's name was on any property records. The lands lie just outside the original 1849 survey of Florida's coastline. Research those lands on the property appraiser's Web site, and nothing comes up.
So around 1993, he slogged through swampy waters, cut his legs on saw grass and put down piles of rocks to claim the land for himself: "Just like in the olden days," he said.
• • •
But Grubb had other things going on in his life then. He had a job helping to build docks. He was married in 1999 and later had a daughter. The land was something he talked about, but it had not yet consumed him.
Then in 2002, everything began falling apart.
The ball and hitch on a truck came loose, ripping his knee. His knee had to be reconstructed, and he spent two years recuperating. He ended up on disability. In 2003, his marriage ended in divorce. His brother died. So did his father.
The land took on a much more central role in Grubb's life. While he was recuperating, he read everything he could get hands on. "I even read the dictionary," he said. "After a while, it got interesting."
He got back into computer research, studying old maps and trying to understand such things as sovereign land and mean high-water line.
"You sleep and you have a dream and you get a thought and get up. I don't have a 9 to 5 so I just got on the computer," recalled Grubb. "You wake up with your face on your keyboard."
The land — and, later, his idea to build a solar or wind farm on it — became something he couldn't stop obsessing over. Or talking about.
"I love him to death, but I'll say, 'Dean, I haven't got the time,' " said Diane Porter, his former employer. "He's always been a good guy, a hard worker. Now that he can't work, he doesn't know what to do with himself."
• • •
In 2007, Grubb filed a quit-claim deed in county records, conveying the lands to himself. He asked Property Appraiser Mike Wells to assign him a parcel identification number.
Wells refused. He said that he considers it state land — or at least he wants the state to tell him what to do with it.
"I kind of admire the guy for his tenacity," said Wells. "But I'm not transferring ownership to this guy or anybody else."
The state owns land that falls below the "mean high-water line," meaning land that's usually submerged. No survey has been done to establish where exactly that line is on that part of the coastline, say state officials.
Rod Maddox, an official with the Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, said upland property owners — the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Pasco County and SunWest Mine — may have rights to the lands that the state does not own.
But nobody will know, he said, unless someone does a survey.
Grubb, an eternal optimist when it comes to people's reactions, said: "Well, that's not downing me. They're just not wanting to get in the limelight."
• • •
But last year, Grubb shifted his strategy. He found out about a public easement recorded in county records. That easement is located somewhere on Sun West-owned property along Old Dixie Highway.
That easement, he thinks, he could use to get to his land. And there are others interested in the easement: Owners of private property locked between the mine land and Swiftmud property, with no means of access.
"I'm trying to build a driveway so people can get to their properties," he said. "Here's a guy out of the kindness of his own freaking heart doing this for people he doesn't even know."
Problem is, no one has officially determined where the easement is.
Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker, who has talked to Grubb about the case many times, said he can't just eyeball what he thinks is the easement. He needs proof. (And she said he also needs a permit to clear a road.)
"I can't prove, and he can't prove, he's in the public easement," she said.
Sun West, meanwhile, sees Grubb as little more than a squatter.
"He's now gone to destroying environmentally sensitive land," said Bob Carpenter, project manager for Sun West. "We're just landowners that don't want trespassing."
Carpenter chuckled, though, and says, "He's sort of a mountain man, you know?"
Last week, Grubb faced the legal consequences of his obsession. Last summer, the Pasco Sheriff's Office arrested Grubb on a trespassing charge after complaints by the mine owners. When the deputy had gone to see him, Grubb also had something in his pocket.
"I'll be honest with you," Grubb said. "I had a half a doob on me. I'm not a head or anything. I'm just trying to get something done."
"If I go to jail and get burned, it's over," he said. "My friends are like 'Dude, you're the nicest dude in the world. Why are they doing this to you?' "
• • •
Grubb went to court last Tuesday. He said he was ready for a trial to show that the charges were bogus: He said he should've never gotten a trespassing charge since he was in a public easement and, subsequently, should never have had to show a cop that he had marijuana.
He ended up pleading no contest to both charges. Got nearly $300 in fines.
"I sort of won," he said later.
All in all, it was a good week for Grubb. He kept picking away at his driveway, heard nothing from Sun West, got a few words of encouragement from people driving down Old Dixie Highway.
Then early last Thursday, Grubb said he woke up to a strange sound. Someone from the mine company had used a front loader to drop boulders in the hole he'd cut through the berm. His 1993 Nissan Sentra, which he had parked on the mine property, was trapped.
This was the second time it had happened. The first time, he spent nearly a week trying to get his car out before he finally found someone with a piece of heavy equipment to come move the rocks. Now, more obstacles.
"It detours you," said Grubb, "like a lot of things in life."
By Friday night, he had a friend move the rocks again.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.