Barring Inquiry

Federal agents probe a local neighborhood's recent vote to install barricades and guardhouses

Lawrence Wigdor's beef with his Enchanted Lake neighbors puts a new spin on "Not in My Back Yard" -- a literal one. The retired real estate broker has met with officials from the local U.S. Attorney's Office, alleging vote fraud in the approval process for two resident-financed guardhouses in the small Northeast Dade residential enclave. One of the six-by-fourteen-foot guardhouses is slated to adjoin Wigdor's property.

"I don't care if we won or lost [the vote]," says the 71-year-old Wigdor, who along with his family moved into their spacious 1960s ranch house on NE 192nd Street in 1968. "But I don't believe this was an honest election. Something smells of herring."

According to Bruce Udolf, chief of the public-corruption unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office, Wigdor's complaint has been referred to the FBI for a preliminary inquiry. Wigdor says he met this past Friday with an FBI agent.

Located near the soon-to-be city of Aventura, Enchanted Lake is bounded by NE 192nd Street to the south, NE 199th Street to the north, NE 22nd Avenue to the west, and the Oleta River to the east. Many of its streets are cul-de-sacs that end at the river; a significant number of its homes are built along the numerous canals running west through the neighborhood from the river. Under the guardhouse plan, two additional streets would be barricaded, adding to the area's isolation.

The controversial notion of barricading streets and installing guardhouses in order to deter crime is not unique to Enchanted Lake and its 181 homes. Several nearby Aventura-area neighborhoods already have taken it upon themselves to do so, including Oak Hammock and Highland Gardens; soon Oak Forest and Highland Lakes will, too.

Residents of unincorporated Dade areas who want to install street closures or other security programs must first gain approval from the Metro Commission, which takes a vote after holding a public hearing. Assuming commissioners have given the go-ahead, the neighborhood populace holds a vote to create a special taxing district, which in turn levies a tax to pay for the proposed services. The vote is conducted by mail in what essentially is an absentee-balloting process. (Municipalities require a similar process, but do not necessarily involve special taxing districts.)

In early May, Metro commissioners held a public hearing and approved a proposal to build and operate two guardhouses in Enchanted Lake, to be staffed around-the-clock by privately contracted security officers who would take down the tag numbers of all cars entering the neighborhood. A vote was held June 13, with the plan passing by a whisker-thin three votes. Wigdor and some of his fellow residents were angered by the fact that twelve ballots were rejected by a state-mandated canvassing board. At least three of those votes, the protestors contend, were legitimate and opposed the proposal. Further, they argue, one yes vote was accepted even though it lacked a signature (State law requires that absentee ballots contain signatures.)

The canvassing board, which comprised Supervisor of Elections David Leahy and county court judges Linda Singer Stein and Harvey Goldstein, met the day after the election and voted 2-1 to accept the unsigned ballot after the voter and notary appeared before the board, according to Alicia Acosta-Thatcher, an administrative coordinator for the elections division. The board declined to accept the vote of Wigdor's 40-year-old son Steven, determining that his signature didn't match the voter-registration card he'd signed 22 years earlier; they were not swayed even after he provided additional samples of his current signature.

While Wigdor protests the vote, his neighbor Charles Ciasca has joined residents of several other communities in forming Floridians Against Barricaded Streets, a group dedicated to fighting the increasing presence of gated and/or barricaded communities. Ciasca's is the chief voice that has been raised in opposition to the Enchanted Lake guardhouses. He has telephoned, written to, or met with a dozen state and local officials (including a meeting with State Rep. Sally Heyman and phone conversations with aides to Gov. Lawton Chiles). He has rallied fellow residents to join him and says he's now preparing a petition to rescind the election results.

"I've got people crying to me because they're afraid they're going to lose their homes," Ciasca exclaims. "We've got a lot of retired people on fixed incomes who can't afford this."

According to estimates made by the Special Taxing District Division of the Metro-Dade Public Works Department, the total cost for the guardhouses (construction, maintenance, and 24-hour staffing) will amount to $413,000 for the first fiscal year and $221,000 each year thereafter. That translates to an additional $2300 in taxes for each homeowner (owners of vacant lots pay half the amount) the first year and $1100 thereafter.

Guardhouse proponents cite surveys showing that property values tend to increase in guarded communities. This, they argue, would offset the extra tax. Local realtors say the area is populated mostly by younger professionals and their families, with homes priced from about $130,000 to $250,000. The tax increase wouldn't be much of a selling point, but, notes real estate broker Eric Rickenback, "Security is a key word everywhere you go these days." An Enchanted Lake resident himself, Rickenback supports the guardhouse proposal.

Ciasca says he recently learned about a hardship exemption available to people who can't afford the special tax. But according to Marie Helene Cohen, chief of the Special Taxing District Division, it's two months too late for that: Hardship exemptions must be filed at the time of the Metro Commission's public hearing.

Aside from the cost of the guardhouses, opponents are dubious of their value as crime deterrents. "I don't see any ability of a guardhouse to ward off crime," comments a long-time resident of Enchanted Lake who didn't want his name published. He says his wife was mugged on their front lawn this past year. "A guardhouse would make it harder to get into the neighborhood, but they would just walk through our back yard," says the man, who contends that much of the neighborhood's vulnerability to crime is due to its accessibility by water. "For us it's no good. I can't afford another two grand."

Those in favor of the guardhouse proposal insist that it is tailored to cut down on the crimes the neighborhood has been experiencing lately, which have nothing to do with the canals. "Several women have been followed home from the grocery store and mugged at gunpoint," says resident Jeffrey Herman, an attorney. "I think crime in our neighborhood has definitely increased. I was told last year that one out of every two of these homes was the victim of crime." Herman could not remember who provided that data. ("I find that very hard to believe," says Det. Marie Duboulay, a Metro-Dade police spokeswoman. Adds Duboulay, who examined a compilation of police calls in the area dating back to May 5: "I would say they've had their fair share of crime, but if you compare it to other neighborhoods on the north side, they're very low, so they're still a plus as far as safe neighborhoods.")

Two studies were undertaken a few years ago to examined the effect of street closures on crime in the recently barricaded Miami Shores area. Both concluded that barricades had a minimal effect, but a deterrent one. "I think what barricades did more than reduce the incidence of crime was to reduce the fear of crime," says Paul Cromwell, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Miami who authored one of the studies. In nearby Shorecrest, however, the Miami Police Department found that many types of crime -- including burglaries, assaults, and car thefts -- increased during the four-month period immediately after barricades were installed there in September 1994.

Metro commissioners have given CGR Construction Co. the thumbs-up to build the two guardhouses in Enchanted Lake, where work is set to begin in October.

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