The Final Harvest

Developers are hungrily eyeing Dade's agricultural heartland, where farmers are a dwindling breed

One person who knows the perils of trying to bring the agricultural community together is Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who represents parts of the Redland. "The Farm Bureau claims to be the voice of agriculture," she says. "Well, I hear many voices of agriculture, and I feel responsible to listen to them all."

Sorenson's efforts on behalf of farming in South Dade have made her and her staff the targets of blistering attacks by the Farm Bureau. "A county commissioner who has no history here, and who refuses to listen to anybody who does, is our problem," says Kirby. "[She] should be trying to unify this community, not dividing it for the sake of consensus or while hiding behind the guise of consensus."

Kirby and other Farm Bureau officials are particularly upset at Sorenson's support for the proposed agricultural retention study. They fired off a press release questioning her motives. Sorenson, they contend, is being manipulated by an aide who hopes to populate the Redland with bed-and-breakfasts. Gabriele Marewski, who runs Sorenson's district office in the South Dade Government Center, briefly tried to start one such establishment -- they're not legal under current county zoning codes -- out of her home before she took a job with the commissioner. Kirby alleges that she continues to operate the establishment. Marewski denies she runs the bed-and-breakfast, insisting that the idea never got off the ground.

"You have [Marewski] who is working in a county commissioner's office," said Kirby. "Now remember, she is a holder of the public trust. You can point fingers at me all you want. I am not elected. This body is not a public body. She is somebody who is formulating public policy who is operating an illegal establishment."

Bed-and-breakfasts alarm Kirby because they represent what he portrays as a concerted effort to turn the Redland into a farm theme park -- too dear a price for its salvation. "It's the creation of all this Napa Valley stuff. This ecotourism product," Kirby said. "This smacks of bed-and-breakfast. That smacks of bed-and-breakfast. Everything smacks of bed-and-breakfast." And with the possible addition of hiking, horse, and bike trails, and the proposed designation of Krome Avenue (which borders the western Redland) as a scenic highway, the rights of farmers in the area would be limited. All those ideas are being debated, and the Farm Bureau doesn't like any of them. In fact, it wants to widen the two-lane Krome to four.

Meanwhile Kirby pillories Sorenson on another front: commercial redevelopment of the decommissioned Homestead air base. Environmentalists have criticized plans to build a two-runway cargo hub because the proposed airport sits between Everglades and Biscayne national parks. Last year their protests forced the air force and the Federal Aviation Authority to perform a supplemental environmental impact study on the feasibility of handing the base over to Dade County.

The Farm Bureau supports the cargo hub; farmers need the air base to stabilize the economy, which has been devastated by the twin calamities of Hurricane Andrew and NAFTA, Kirby says. (Some farmers with land adjacent to the air base stand to make a fortune if there is secondary development around the airport.) Recently the bureau cosponsored, with the Homestead Chamber of Commerce, a trip to Tallahassee to lobby the governor's cabinet on the issue. They won an endorsement.

For her criticism of the way in which base redevelopment is being pursued, Commissioner Sorenson was a frequent target in an anonymous newsletter, the South Dade Economic Indicator, that circulated in the region last year. The usually talkative Kirby has little to say when asked about the publication. "I have no comment," he begins, then acknowledges, "It certainly got some people's attention. It drives poor Katy crazy. I haven't seen a recent issue, but that's not to say more might not come out."

One man who knows both how important and how difficult it is to work with the Farm Bureau is Reginald Walters, who served in the county planning department for 28 years, 26 of them as director.

"Dade County needs to have a balance between urban and agricultural land," says the 65-year-old Walters, who belongs to the Redland Conservancy. "It makes for a healthier existence."

He characterizes Dade's farming as a gold mine for county taxpayers: The total impact of agriculture on the county's economy in 1996 was $834 million, but its consumption of county services is well below that of residential or industrial development. In addition, South Dade's farmland and open spaces provide a needed release from the urban congestion farther north.

Walters paints the issue as one of individual versus community rights. "If everyone in Dade County could exercise their individual rights and say, 'I do whatever I want with zoning,' we would have chaos," he says. "To be totally free, sometimes we have to give up certain rights. Otherwise we wouldn't have traffic lights."

Back in 1980 Walters presided over efforts to pass an agricultural retention plan similar to the one contemplated today. Although the plan did manage to create an agricultural designation on county land-use maps, it failed to obtain any protections for those lands; those guarantees were lost in battles with the same opponents who object to the current plan. "We would be foolish indeed to allow the farmers to let this opportunity slip away," Walters says.

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