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.

Williamson has agreed to restrict the height of his main building to 40 feet, even though under current zoning a developer can build a 100-foot-high office tower there. He has also agreed to use special lights and signs that, he claims, won't cast a glare over the neighborhood. Williamson will also be responsible for the cost of landscaping designed to shield the homes adjacent to the proposed dealership. He has hired a phalanx of experts, including a sound engineer who maintains that the new Williamson Cadillac would actually be good for the neighborhood because it would block the street noise now emanating from South Dixie Highway.

Williamson also argues that his dealership is far preferable to the myriad uses allowed for that site. Under existing county rules, a developer could place on the industrial portion of the property a brewery, a cement factory, a chicken slaughterhouse, a machine shop, a bottling plant, or a host of other undesirable businesses. "There are lots and lots of businesses that could have been dumped on this piece of property without any public hearing," Williamson says.

Responds Mary Williams: "If it is such a great use of the property and such a great deal for the neighbors, then you shouldn't have to go out and spend $25,000 on consultants to justify it."

Williamson, who confirms he has spent nearly $25,000 on attorneys, lobbyists, and experts to rationalize the merits of his proposal, did win over some residents -- most notably the board of directors of the Dadeland Cove Homeowners Association, whose members said they were impressed with the businessman's efforts to mitigate potential damage to the neighborhood.

But Betty Romeo, who is 61 years old and lives in Dadeland Cove, says she was disappointed when she heard that her board was supporting Williamson's proposal. "It made us furious," Romeo recalls, referring to her neighbors, "so that's when we started with the petitions." Romeo and neighborhood friends went from house to house throughout Dadeland Cove. Out of nearly 300 homes in the subdivision, residents in 179 of them signed her petition opposing Williamson Cadillac. Romeo also contacted Mary Williams, whom she had heard was also opposing the proposed dealership, and joined Williams's living-room strategy sessions.

The first public battle over the dealership took place before the area's community council, an elected body of seven people created to rule on neighborhood zoning issues. It came before the council this past March, and 75 neighborhood residents showed up to oppose the project. But attorney Jeffrey Bercow, who was overseeing Williamson's presentation, asked that the item be deferred. Council members granted the deferral, as they were obligated to do.

Williamson's proposal next appeared on the council's agenda in May. Nearly 100 residents showed up in opposition. Bercow again asked that the item be deferred, and again the council was obliged by law to grant his request. (Mary Williams says she has since learned that this is a common tactic used by zoning attorneys who represent developers against residential neighborhoods. They repeatedly postpone the hearing in hopes that residents will become frustrated and stop attending.)

When the community council met this past June, Williams and Romeo walked into the meeting room, on the south campus of Miami-Dade Community College, only to find the place packed with Williamson Cadillac employees. "This time most of our people couldn't even get into the room," Williams recalls. "Only about 25 or so made it inside."

In addition to producing a battery of paid experts to speak on behalf of his plans, Williamson also transformed a portion of the council meeting into a testimonial to his character. Jack Langer, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami, was summoned to the microphone. "I'm here speaking not about decibels or noise or speeding through neighborhoods," Langer began. "I'm here speaking on behalf of the good corporate citizen Williamson Cadillac has been to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami. I'm here in support of what they have done in and around the community and what they will continue to do."

According to an audio tape of the meeting, an unidentified councilmember replied sympathetically: "We all know Mr. Williamson's reputation."

Despite the objections of Williams and Romeo and their allies, the council voted to grant Williamson's request to rezone the entire parcel as industrial so he could build his auto dealership.

Blind-sided in November, frustrated by postponements in March and May, then feeling steamrolled in June, the residents who opposed Williamson Cadillac now realized they needed help. Mary Williams and others began contacting various attorneys who specialized in zoning matters. "The strange thing is," Williams observes, "there are very few zoning attorneys who want to represent neighborhoods and homeowners." It is far more lucrative, she notes, to cultivate a reputation as a developer's attorney.

When the neighbors finally found an attorney who would take their case, he demanded a $10,000 retainer just to appeal the community council's decision to the Miami-Dade County Commission. "This is beyond what simple people can afford to fight," says Karen Collins, a first-grade teacher who has lived in the neighborhood for 46 years.

Unable to come up with the large retainer, the neighbors decided to keep battling on their own. They gathered the necessary forms and filed an appeal. A few weeks later, on Tuesday, July 21, the matter went before the county commission.

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