Arrested Development

A Miami Beach citizens' group seeks to obstruct future construction on waterfront properties

Seems that around every corner these days there's a cabal of disgruntled citizens plotting civic revolt: Some are forming new cities, others are trying to dissolve old ones; or they're taking to the streets in support of better parks, a cleaner environment, lower taxes. One of the most recent expressions of this revolutionary spirit is a Miami Beach effort to slow -- if not stop -- any further development along the city's waterfront.

A political action committee that calls itself Save Miami Beach has been circulating a petition as a first step toward getting a city charter amendment on the ballot. The drive's organizers would like to require developers to seek voters' approval in order to change the amount of allowable development on waterfront properties.

Though most of the city's waterfront land is already developed, the petition organizers say there's still plenty to fight for. "We're trying to protect the few areas that are left," declares Beach attorney and former commission candidate David Dermer, who is leading the drive.

Technically, the petition proposes that the city maintain the existing buildable square footage on property adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, Biscayne Bay, Government Cut, and Indian Creek; any request for an increase would have to go to a public vote. Dermer and his volunteers have collected nearly 4000 signatures, mostly by staffing the polls during the November 5 presidential election. That's more than the required ten percent of the city's 39,548 registered voters needed to bring the proposal to a vote. (A majority of voters would then be needed to pass the referendum.) But Dermer plans to collect an additional 1000 over the next few weeks before turning in the petition to Metro-Dade's supervisor of elections.

Dermer isn't coy about his principal target: a hotly disputed tract of undeveloped land on the southern tip of Miami Beach. Known as the Alaska Parcel -- it was once owned by Alaskan natives -- the 3.44-acre triangle is owned by the Portofino Group, the development company headed by German entrepreneur Thomas Kramer. (The property is located just west of South Pointe Park and Portofino Tower, which is currently under construction.)

As a condition of the recently negotiated South Pointe land transaction between Portofino and the City of Miami Beach, the city agreed to consider changing the zoning of the Alaska Parcel. The property is currently zoned for "marine recreational" use, allowing for about 120,000 square feet of marine-related development with a height limit of 40 feet; Portofino has expressed a desire to build beyond those limits and wants an unrestrictive zoning classification that would accommodate skyscraping condominiums. (Portofino's exact intentions are unclear, and company officials did not return numerous calls for comment.) As it stands, the rezoning would be a matter for the city commission to decide and would require several public hearings. Denial of the rezoning request, though, is highly unlikely: A no vote would almost certainly kill the hard-fought transaction, which took about two years to negotiate.

It's not clear what impact the charter amendment, if successful, might have on the Portofino deal. City Attorney Murray Dubbin declines to comment on the matter until his bosses -- the commission -- formally request a legal opinion. (Clifford Schulman, who is representing Portofino in the land deal, has also withheld public comment on the matter.)

Dermer and his colleagues are anticipating that Portofino and its lawyers will launch an all-out attack against the measure, if only to preserve the land-swap agreement. Legal challenges will likely come from other directions, as well, because the measure will affect all waterfront property on Miami Beach, built or unbuilt. "We expect all kinds of scare tactics, because you're talking about a tremendous amount of money for a few people," Dermer says.

One local attorney intimately familiar with Beach zoning issues expects that if the measure were to succeed, it would probably precipitate so-called takings claims by waterfront property owners who felt that the amendment unfairly singled them out. Such claims could have a devastating financial impact on the city if the plaintiffs prevail. "The petition organizers have no idea what they're doing," comments the attorney, who requested anonymity. "There can be very unintended and very undesirable results to a measure they may not have thought through enough."

It might seem incongruous that Dermer is launching his drive after the Miami Beach commission made a remarkable push to limit development throughout the city. "The last time the city did any upzoning was probably back in 1979," insists Miami Beach Commissioner Neisen Kasdin, who several years ago organized a commission downzoning effort that ratcheted back the allowable building densities and square footage throughout the city. "There has probably been no city in the history of Dade County that has done more downzoning and zoning reform than the City of Miami Beach," Kasdin declares.

But Mark Needle, who is helping Dermer with the petition drive, says the proposed charter amendment would help ensure that the commission's downzoning efforts aren't reversed willy-nilly. "There's nothing to stop the commissioners from changing any of these low-density areas to high-density," says Needle, a member of the South Pointe Citizens Coalition, which unsuccessfully battled against the Portofino land deal. "The amendment is a safety blanket.

 
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