Builder Beware

Welcome to the new Miami Beach, where the citizens are angry, commissioners are cowed, and developers are Public Enemy #1

The commission's decision on 20 Venetian Way was "one of the worst days of my professional career," Dougherty concedes. She sees the action as a symptom of anti-development sentiment gone wild. "Just apply the rules consistently," she says, sounding tired. "Tell me what the rules are and let me play the game."

While activist Hamilton believes the question of applicability of the charter amendment to other pending projects is an important one, she sees a more general significance in the commission's decision: "This whole issue has put a spotlight on the process that's been followed for design approval on the Beach." She points specifically to the deferring of traffic studies and other concurrency issues until after DRB approval. "It's probably been going on for years, and it's not right."

The developer of 20 Venetian Way clearly feels he's the one who has been wronged. In a February 18 letter to Mayor Kasdin, Dougherty called the commission's decision "unsupportable and erroneous," and wrote that Labruzzo "will pursue all legal remedies to overturn the commission's decision and to secure all compensation to which the applicant is entitled under the law."

The legal remedies include suing on the basis of federal and state laws that protect the rights of property owners, including civil rights laws.

Like every Design Review Board meeting, the February 25 gathering in the Miami Beach City Commission chambers is a minor traffic jam of architects with drawings and balsa-wood models, power-suited attorneys, and knots of fist-shaking, not-in-my-backyard neighborhood activists.

Today's agenda includes several projects for which Shubin and Bass have been retained; both partners are in attendance, Shubin's suit a pinstriped navy, Bass's a greenish-khaki. They're seated with Charles Schaab, the president of the Save Miami Beach group for which Shubin served as pro bono counsel last year. Lucia Dougherty is also there (pantsuit, navy blue) representing the developers of the Westin Resort at 4833 Collins Ave. and the Carillon Hotel at 6801 Collins Ave.

Planning and zoning director Dean Grandin steps up to the podium before the seven men of the DRB and gives a presentation about a five-page memo he sent to the DRB the previous day. The crux of the memo: that the city commission was wrong in reversing the decision of the DRB regarding 20 Venetian Way. The final decision on whether a project is concurrent should rest with Grandin and his staff.

Although the staff will include issues such as traffic flow in its reports to the DRB "for informational purposes," the memo reads, "the board is not authorized to address any measures" having to do with the impact a project will have on the level of city services. "Staff will make those determinations," Grandin emphasizes from the lectern. "They fall outside of your jurisdiction. Your role is essentially aesthetic."

As Grandin speaks, Shubin fumes in his seat. The muscles of his square jaw flex, and his ears begin to redden. "This is the most outrageous thing I've ever seen," he rasps, then stands up and waits, arms folded, for Grandin to finish.

Shubin's response is terse and charged. What Grandin has just declared, he says, is a direct contradiction of the city commission's determination on 20 Venetian Way. In fact, Shubin notes, Grandin made these same arguments in the commission hearing of the 20 Venetian Way appeal, and the commission rejected them.

By trying to reserve total authority for judging a project's compliance with concurrency standards, Shubin says, Grandin is attempting "a wholesale amendment of the zoning code. This is patently illegal. This exceeds the director's authority."

After this tense exchange, another project that Lucia Dougherty champions and Shubin and Bass oppose, the Carillon Hotel, comes before the board. Shubin, speaking for his neighborhood clients, raises the same point he did in his opposition to 20 Venetian: The Carillon has not yet met concurrency. The staff report given to the board members, consistent with Grandin's memo, recommends the project be approved even though the developer has not yet proven it to be concurrent. Other issues remain, and the board decides to defer voting on the project.

After the meeting, Shubin dashed off a letter to Grandin (copied to the mayor, commissioners, city attorney, and Dougherty) reiterating his point that Grandin's memorandum "could be construed as tantamount to a confession of error" concerning the 20 Venetian Way decision. Put in more prosaic terms, which Shubin is always happy to do: "What did Dean do? He put an opinion in writing that what commission did with 20 Venetian was wrong. Greenberg Traurig is going to take that statement and jam it up the city's ass."

Says Dougherty: "I agree with John Shubin. [Grandin's memorandum] is a confession of error."

Shubin says he sees a continuing pattern in the city's planning department of decisions favoring developers -- many of whom just happen to be represented by attorneys from Greenberg Traurig. "Maybe I'm just too conspiracy-minded," Shubin shrugs, "but there are people who want me to take this to the State Attorney's Office." (Grandin did not return several phone calls requesting comment for this story.)

More than any individual entity or person, Shubin says, the real enemy is the behind-the-scenes process. "Before an application even gets filed," he complains, "a developer and his capable counsel will sit down with staff and find out what staff wants, what it doesn't want, 'Can I use bonuses?' These discussions take place privately. The public has no knowledge that any of this is going on. It's not illegal, but it shows the disparity in the points of entry for neighbors versus developers."

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