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.

The ordinance Margolis introduced was not written by a member of her staff -- or by any other county employee, for that matter. Rather, it was created by Williamson's hired gun, land-use attorney Jeffrey Bercow. "I drafted it on behalf of Williamson and I lobbied for it," Bercow declares candidly. "I spoke to some commissioners and their staffs. I don't recall who." Did Bercow speak with Margolis? "I believe Ed talked to her," he replies.

One person he is certain he did not talk to is Katy Sorenson. "I was sure she would be opposed to it," Bercow recalls. "Katy Sorenson has never been in favor of anything I've worked on, and I didn't see why this would be the exception."

It is not so difficult to understand why Sorenson would generally oppose Bercow. He has earned a well-deserved reputation as a developer's lobbyist, one of the black knights of zoning law who preys on residential neighborhoods. In the past, he's represented the Robbie family (against homeowners surrounding their stadium), the Graham Companies (against homeowners in Miami Lakes), and Sportacres Development (against homeowners in northwest Dade).

When the City of Aventura tried to curb unwanted noise by restricting the hours construction companies could operate, Bercow represented three different firms opposing the measure. When the county commission last year passed an ordinance requiring that developers seeking zoning variances provide site plans so neighbors could see precisely how a development would affect them, Bercow successfully led the charge to have Mayor Alex Penelas veto it.

A prodigious campaign fundraiser, Bercow specializes in exploiting not only his knowledge of the system and his political contacts, but the naivete of homeowners as well.

Bercow, however, wasn't the only lobbyist on the Williamson team. The businessman also acknowledges hiring Ric Sisser, a man who has virtually carved a lobbying career out of his close ties to Gwen Margolis. "He helped guide me through the process," Williamson says of the cigar-chomping Sisser.

Thanks to Sisser's "guidance" and Bercow's lobbying, the Margolis ordinance took barely ten minutes to breeze through the commission and win approval. Commissioner Natacha Millan, who was absent that day, had asked that the vote be postponed until she returned but Margolis refused, insisting that the item be taken up without delay.

The ordinance caught Mary Williams and her Kendall neighbors by surprise. Even Katy Sorenson concedes that when the matter came before the commission last November, she didn't realize it was written explicitly for Williamson Cadillac. "I thought something fishy was going on," Sorenson recounts. "I had heard during the meeting that it might have something to do with something in my district, but I didn't know what."

Sorenson opposed Margolis's ordinance anyway. "Regardless of who or what was behind it," she says, "I didn't think it was good public policy." Commissioners Betty Ferguson and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also voted against it. Commissioners Jimmy Morales, Javier Souto, Dennis Moss, and James Burke joined Margolis in voting for the change to the zoning codes.

For his part, Ed Williamson was apparently so confident Margolis would deliver those zoning changes that he bought the property on July 7, 1997 -- four months before the commission chairwoman's ordinance was passed. He paid $2.6 million for the 2.3-acre site.

Williamson had just one hurdle left. Because a section of the property was zoned for residential use only, he would need to petition the county for a change in the zoning on that portion of the land, a process that required public hearings.

This time, though, Mary Williams and her neighbors promised they'd be waiting for him.

Williams's living room resembles the command and control center of a military campaign. On several chairs sit stacks of papers, including copies of Ed Williamson's application for a zoning variance and the neighborhood's response. In a corner are copies of petitions that have been circulated outside local supermarkets in opposition to the proposed dealership. Spread out over a coffee table in the center of the room are maps of the neighborhood and site plans for a new Williamson Cadillac. "My husband thinks I'm a little crazy," Williams allows. "I think he'd prefer it if I got all this stuff out of here."

Ever since the commission passed Margolis's ordinance last year, residents in the area have been meeting regularly at Williams's home to plot strategy. There are actually two communities bordering the proposed car dealership: Dadeland Cove, a 300-home subdivision; and Continental Park, with more than 800 homes. At the center of these neighborhoods, which stretch from South Dixie Highway to Galloway Road north of 104th Street, is Continental Park -- an eleven-acre green space with ball fields and tennis courts. "It's one of those old-fashioned neighborhoods," says Williams. "On most blocks, everybody knows everybody else. They tend to look out for each other."

Ed Williamson insists he is not an enemy and denies he is trying to ram anything down the community's throat. He notes that he has met with the area's homeowner groups and has modified his plans for the dealership. He believes those changes will lessen the negative impact car dealerships typically have on neighborhoods. "This is not going to be Kendall Toyota," he says derisively, referring to the behemoth car lot down the road on South Dixie Highway.

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