How To Save the Neighborhood

Let's say you've got a serious zoning problem. Here's what you do: Show up at county hall with armed with allies and solid arguments. Surely your elected representatives will do the right thing.

Mary Williams remembers the day Ed Williamson told her he intended to purchase the vacant lot near her Kendall home and move his Cadillac dealership there. It was a June day in 1997. Williams says her recollection is clear because she was dumbfounded by the prominent businessman's pronouncement.

First, she was familiar with the tract he was going to buy on the corner of South Dixie Highway and 104th Street. It was very small for a car dealership, a little more than two acres. Second, the traffic is horrendous at that intersection, which is where the Palmetto Expressway feeds into South Dixie. Adding a car lot there would only exacerbate the congestion.

Most important, Williams knew that the county's comprehensive master development plan -- the guide by which all land in the county should be developed -- recommends against locating an auto dealership on that type of lot because a portion of it was zoned for residential use only. She was also aware the remainder of the property was zoned industrial, and that specific county ordinances bar car dealerships on industrial lots smaller than three acres, or operating an auto repair shop inside a dealership if it is within 500 feet of a residential neighborhood. Williamson's parcel failed on both counts.

"When he told me his plans," Williams recalls, "I wasn't really worried because I knew the idea of putting a car dealership on this dinky piece of property was ludicrous."

While 58-year-old housewives typically aren't conversant in arcane county zoning codes, Williams is far from typical. For one thing, she is president of the Continental Park Homeowners Association; for another, she has embraced her responsibilities with a seriousness and devotion rare even among elected officials. For the past 22 years Williams has lived in this middle-class community of single-family homes and townhouses, and she well knew that any development on that particular parcel would have a significant impact on her neighbors.

During that telephone conversation last year, Williams was genuinely concerned that the auto magnate might not be aware of the various zoning restrictions on the site, and so she counseled him to be careful, otherwise he might end up being stuck with an expensive piece of unusable property.

"'Oh, well, that's all right,'" she recalls Williamson responding. "I've already talked to the commissioner and she's going to take care of the zoning for us. She's going to help us with the code."

Ed Williamson didn't identify the commissioner by name, but because he used the word she, Mary Williams assumed he was referring to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, in whose district the lot was located. But the notion that Sorenson would grease the skids for some arrogant car dealer was so ridiculous Williams simply laughed into the phone. "I knew Katy Sorenson would never fix the code for anybody," she says. "Katy Sorenson is too straight to do something like that."

Just to be safe, though, Williams promptly called Sorenson's office and spoke to her chief of staff, Mindy McNichol, who assured her that Sorenson had no intention of rewriting county codes as a favor to a lone car dealer. That was good enough for Mary Williams. She put the matter behind her.

And then it happened.
Five months later, on November 4, 1997, ordinance number 97-197 was introduced before the Miami-Dade County Commission. The ordinance, which passed easily, reduced the minimum number of acres required for a car dealership from three to two on industrially zoned land. The measure also allowed auto dealers to house repair shops alongside residential neighborhoods, eliminating the previous requirement that such facilities be at least 500 feet from people's homes. The ordinance never mentioned Williamson Cadillac or the vacant lot at 104th Street and South Dixie Highway; it simply changed the countywide zoning code that affects more than one million residents in the unincorporated portions of Miami-Dade.

And as Williamson predicted, the ordinance was indeed introduced by a woman: Gwen Margolis, commission chairwoman.

So did Williamson simply ask Margolis to sponsor the ordinance? "I have never had a conversation with Ed Williamson regarding that property," Margolis says emphatically. "Not at all." She insists that Williamson had "absolutely nothing" to do with her decision to initiate an ordinance changing the zoning requirements for automobile dealerships. It was, she claims, simply a coincidence.

Not according to Ed Williamson.
"Absolutely I talked to Commissioner Margolis," he affirmed by telephone while vacationing in the mountains of western Canada. Williamson went on to explain how he maneuvered to get the zoning change. "We wanted to put [the dealership] on that site, so we talked to the commissioner," he said. "I've known her for several years." In fact, he added, he has regularly contributed to her campaigns, dating back to her days in the Florida Senate. "I met with her and explained our situation," he elaborated. "I asked if she would consider dropping the acreage requirement from three to two acres and she said she would."

Of course she would. After all, who could say no to Ed Williamson? A bona fide mover and shaker in Miami-Dade's business community, Williamson was recently named co-chairman of the Non-Group, the legendary coterie of influential Miami business and civic leaders. He is also a former president of the Orange Bowl Committee and sits on the board of trustees for the University of Miami.

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