December 25, 2007

Gables Residents Seek Path to Sea

By Elaine De Valle, The Miami Herald

Dec. 25--Not everyone who lives in Gables by the Sea is technically by the sea.

About a quarter of the 360 homeowners in the affluent community do not have access to Biscayne Bay. And just as they have for the past three decades, some of those havenots are trying again to get to the sea.

A group of residents west of a saltwater canal dam that keeps them and their boats from the bay have formed the Coral Bay Section Homeowners Association, a break-off group from the main Gables by the Sea Homeowners Association with one goal in mind: ocean access.

Their efforts since the 1970s to remove the dam have been met with fierce resistance from the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management and neighboring communities. They fear saltwater intrusion would contaminate the water supply of the residents who have wells nearby in Pinecrest.

So the residents changed tactics: Now they want to install mechanical lifts on the dam to boost boats over it from one side to the other.

Raul Segredo, president of the Coral Bay homeowners group, said it would cost about $5.3 million to fortify the dam and the seawalls and install the lifts -- about $60,000 per homeowner on the west side.

While not all the homeowners on the west side of the dam support the plans, the move will improve property values for all, Segredo said.

Kevin Devel, an import-exporter who also keeps a 39-foot sailboat in a marina, said he is willing to pay the cost. "What we want is the same thing that everyone on the east side already has," Devel said. "Doesn't everyone want to improve property values?"

But the lifts plan also has some resistance. Members of the main Gables by the Sea Homeowners Association, which also is against removal of the dams, say lifts would lower their quality of life, destroy peace and quiet, damage the environment and give the picturesque canal a commercial look.

"They are basically planning on putting a marina in my backyard," said Claire Ceballos who bought a property on Lugo Avenue for $2.5 million where she and husband Cesar hope to build a dream home for themselves and their five children.

Ceballos is one of three homeowners whose properties abut the dam who have hired attorneys to fight the boatlift plan.

David Arnold, who lives two houses from the dam on the ocean access side, has collected 130 signatures against any change -- removal of the dam or boatlifts.

"That would entail 40 boats trying to get over the dam on commercial lifts every Sunday, with exhaust and boats idling around," Arnold said. "It would basically be like my having bought waterfront property on the boat ramp at Matheson Hammock."

Segredo said traffic could be controlled: "We can put in a reservation system that controls access so we don't have 80 boats trying to go out at the same time."

But Arnold also has environmental concerns. "There would be all kinds of chemicals, gasoline and sewage and trash that doesn't wash in and out because there's no tide."

DERM officials are concerned about that.

"Saltwater intrusion would not be as much of a problem with boatlifts, but there is a number of other issues here," said DERM Director Carlos Espinosa.

"We would have to look at the boating impact. It becomes a pretty complex land-use issue in that there would be issues in regards to additional boat traffic and governance. Who is going to maintain this? For how long? Who has liability?"

Arnold thinks the landlocked homeowners know their plan will never come to fruition. He and others believe there is an ulterior motive -- that the Coral Bay homeowners know they won't get access and plan to sue the city and the county if they are denied permits for the lifts. He cites another case where underwater lots on the community's edge were purchased by developers who later won $7 million in a "takings" claim, arguing the state's environmental rules erased their property rights.

Segredo alluded to a possible "taking" in an August e-mail to landlocked homeowners.

"The county may bring eminent domain action forward to reclaim the dam for the public good," Segredo wrote. "Given that we can easily demonstrate $50 million in economic value unlocked by our ownership in the dam, I look forward to that discussion."

Said Arnold: "At the end of the day, they know what they bought. They knew they had no ocean access and there was no question about that."

Nothing can happen until the court decides who legally owns the earthen dam -- a tiny spit of land infested with huge iguanas that dive bomb from pine trees when humans approach. Miami-Dade County, deeded the dam by the developer in 1972, lost it in a court decision. The county has appealed.

Some of the homeowners were picking up trash and trying to cut down some overgrowth weeks ago when they were stopped by Gables code enforcement. City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez said they must wait out the appeal process.

"If we were not to maintain the status quo pending the litigation and something were to happen on the property which has been the same for 40 years, we could have a potential issue with public safety and welfare," Hernandez said, adding that the default decision "was incorrectly entered by the trial judge."


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