Dig This

Ronald Esserman didn't want his boat hitting bottom. Now the auto tycoon and his top-flight contractors are going to get spanked.

Dig This
Ronald Esserman didn't want his boat hitting bottom. Now the auto tycoon and his top-flight contractors are going to get spanked.

By Sean Rowe
After years of hard work and philanthropy, auto dealer and arts patron Ronald Esserman decided to build what could fairly be described as a mansion. He bought a patch of waterfront land in Coconut Grove and set about raising a boxy, three-story Italianate dream house.

The lap pool and Jacuzzi were fabulous. The view of Biscayne Bay from the balcony was a knockout. Esserman even had a swell next-door neighbor: Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning. But just as the house-proud paterfamilias was looking forward to his first barbecue, he discovered a major lifestyle snag: At low tide the water behind his new home was too shallow to float his 40-foot sloop. When he tried to sail the Windsong II up to his dock, she lodged on the bottom, hard aground.

So Esserman, owner of Esserman Nissan and a board member of the Miami City Ballet and the Zoological Society of Florida, did what any magnate would do: He hired tip-top professionals to take care of his problem.

Today, six months later, the Dade State Attorney's Office is considering filing criminal charges against the contractor and the environmental consultant Esserman employed to dredge a 60-foot channel across the bay floor -- essentially a rectangular hole intended to give the car dealer and his sailboat easy passage from dock to navigable water. According to county inspectors, the work was performed illegally, in violation of county, state, and federal regulations, and was done on weekends so as to avoid detection. Moreover, they say, it was done by people who should have known better.

On September 28, James Robinson, an inspector with Metro-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), caught workers on a 50-foot barge using a diesel bucket crane to dig a three- to five-foot-deep trench beside Esserman's property. Robinson examined several permits proferred by the crane operator and noted that none applied to the site where the work was being done. After consulting with his supervisor, the DERM inspector ordered the dredge crew to stop working and took photographs and water samples. He wrote in his report that the dredge operators weren't effectively preventing underwater silt clouds from forming and spreading across the bay.

Robinson's discovery followed an early-morning phone call from a fed-up neighbor.

"The bucket was slamming down into the water and picking up sand and rock and dumping it over on the shore," reports Lester Pancoast, an architect who lives just north of Esserman. "People with equipment like that tend to know the rules, but these guys weren't using turbidity barriers, and we knew that was a requirement. We could see a big plume of dirty water going out into the bay.

"The fact that they were there on weekends rather than weekdays is what really alerted me," Pancoast goes on. "I would look out of my house on Friday night and all of a sudden see this big dredge coming in, and then it disappears on Sunday night."

In mid-January DERM sent Esserman a notice of violation and ordered him to submit a plan for patching up the mess or else risk a lawsuit. Esserman has tentatively agreed to fill in the hole and replace 2000 square feet of sea grass torn up by the dredge, and also, perhaps, to perform various acts of mitigation -- a form of penance in which a transgressor helps out with environmental-enhancement projects not directly related to his original sins. But he'll be getting off easy compared to the two men he hired; consultant J. Frederic Blitstein, owner of Environmental Planning Team, Inc., may face criminal charges along with marine contractor James Royo, president of Shoreline Foundation, Inc.

Coastal dredging is a time-honored South Florida tradition. Dozens of residential islands -- including much of Miami Beach -- were created before World War II by scooping muck from the bottom of Biscayne Bay and dumping it into piles, then planting the piles with palm trees and selling it all as real estate. Willy-nilly channel digging by private homeowners was common practice throughout the Sixties, but with the advent of strict environmental regulations in the Seventies such practices grew increasingly taboo. The Esserman case represents the first time in Dade County history that a coastal dredging project has been referred to authorities for criminal prosecution, according to DERM officials and the Dade State Attorney's Office.

"It's certainly going to send a certain message, especially to people in the marine industry, that the state attorney and the Department of Environmental Resources Management aren't kidding around about this stuff," says Joe Stilwell, DERM's chief of enforcement.

"Mr. Blitstein is an environmental consultant who has worked in Dade County for years. Shoreline Foundation, Inc., is a well-established company. Anyone who's in the business of dredging should know that permits are required for this sort of thing," Stilwell continues. "The incident went beyond something that could be handled civilly, and I concluded that the state attorney really should review it."

Stilwell notes that Esserman wouldn't have been able to get either state or county permits for the dredging project, because the state-owned bay bottom in question is part of the protected Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

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