July 19, 2008

Not so Fast on Westward Sprawl, State Tells Dade

By Matthew I. Pinzur and Michael Vasquez, The Miami Herald

Jul. 19--State regulators put the brakes on two developments in far west Miami-Dade County and a plan to invite more residential construction along the Miami River on Friday, saying the city and county skirted their own growth-management rules in approving the projects.

The Florida Department of Community Affairs also found that the local governments violated state land-use guidelines.

"They're saying responsible growth is important not just in Miami-Dade, but all over the state of Florida," said Sara Fain, Everglades Restoration Project Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The highest-profile project is a Lowe's home-improvement store and a charter school eyed for adjacent land at Southwest Eighth Street and 137th Avenue. The company has fought for years to build on the site, which is outside the county's urban development boundary.

The County Commission signed off in April, rejecting the recommendations of its own staff, and then overrode a veto by Mayor Carlos Alvarez. It also approved a shopping center at Southwest 167th Avenue and Kendall Drive, along with new roads the developer promised.

The pendulum swung back with the state regulators' rejection, which blocks the projects from moving forward and likely kicks off months of legal wrangling.

While settlements of such cases are not uncommon, the state order lists only one solution: rescinding the commission's votes.

"In most cases, we're open to talk, to see if there's a way to resolve the differences through a settlement rather than leaving it to lawyers and a judge," said Jon Peck, spokesman for the community affairs department. "But a lot of that is entirely up to the local community as well."

A spokesman for the shopping center could not be reached late Friday, but an attorney for Lowe's said this latest setback would not make the company quit. Lowe's has never been closer than now, even with the state's opposition.

"Lowe's and the charter school operator are committed to bringing needed services to the area and, thus, we are obviously disappointed," attorney Juan Mayol said in a written statement. "We feel confident that the decision will be overturned."

Many of the state's objections revolved around the same point: According to the county's own analysis, there is still enough land inside the development boundary for commercial growth.

"There is no need for additional commercial land," wrote Mike McDaniel, chief of comprehensive planning.

In his order, McDaniel also fretted that the land set aside for the charter school could legally be used for other nonresidential purposes. Moreover, the Lowe's site is considered wetlands and the shopping center is now zoned for agriculture -- both designations the county is supposed to avoid developing.

The state decision also augurs poorly for Parkland, a planned mixed-use development outside the boundary that is so large it would essentially be a new suburb. The project, by Lennar and developer Edward Easton, is taking preliminary steps this summer toward approval.

Environmentalists and anti-sprawl activists cheered the state's decision and took steps toward officially being a part of the settlement talks. They have long argued that expansion in the county's western reaches will harm the environment, clog traffic arteries and spread ever thinner county services such as police and fire.

"This is a great victory for the people who care about quality of life and protecting our cherished environmental resources," said Michael Pizzi, a leader of Hold the Line, a coalition of groups that opposes expanding the boundary. "It's a victory of common sense over urban sprawl and greed."

Supporters, however, said the state was imperiling development that had the support of neighbors. By providing more roads, new stores and a large school, they said, traffic and the environment would actually improve because residents would not need to drive as far.

"It was a positive for schools. It was going to help the traffic situation and bring jobs," said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who voted for both projects. "Congratulations to them for all that."

A spokesman for the county school district said Superintendent Rudy Crew was not counting on the charter school. Killing or delaying plans for one school in one neighborhood "is probably not going to have an effect on us," spokesman John Schuster said.

On the Miami River, the state's action -- for now -- negates a May City Commission vote that eliminated significant protections for the river's dwindling marine industry.

For example, commissioners removed the word "port" from a planning section dealing with the river. Another change made adding residential development a priority.

Industry advocates feared the vote would hasten the replacement of well-paying shipping jobs with high-rise condos and apartments. Since 2000, nearly half of the marine-industrial land in the city has been gobbled up through rezoning, according to the Miami River Marine Group, a private association of marine businesses.

Andrew Dickman, an attorney representing the group, called Miami a city "addicted to land development."

"They know no other way of planning," he said. Thanks to the state, "the working river's definitely a lot safer than it was yesterday."

Even in a sputtering economy -- Florida leads the nation in job losses for the past year -- city officials have largely been dismissive of river businesses. "That river is dead," City Commissioner Angel Gonzalez said in May.

Economic studies tell a different story. The river is credited with creating an estimated 6,106 jobs, with combined earnings of $338.9 million. And once the river's in-progress dredging is complete -- perhaps as soon as this year -- commerce is expected to spike.

On Friday, Mayor Manny Diaz reiterated the city's long-held position that it is the westernmost, county-controlled portion of the river that is the industry hub.

"We are not affecting one single job on the river," Diaz said. "Our point here is that we're not going to sit here and let properties sit vacant and sit abandoned for years."

However, an April county-performed breakdown of the river's marine operating permits -- used by large shipping facilities, marinas and the like -- showed 57 percent of the active permits lie in the city's portion of the river.

The state rulings now move to the Department of Administrative Hearings, which handles certain government disputes in a court-like system. Unless there is a dramatic political shift, both the city and county appear unlikely to back down.

"Our vote was done to help the people," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, who also voted for both projects. "Especially now, in these trying times, more than ever, this makes sense."


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