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.

On the day of the meeting, only about twenty residents made it to the commission chambers. Many more who opposed Ed Williamson had either been worn down by the protracted process or couldn't take time off from work. Those who did attend had organized their presentations ahead of time.

The neighbors got off to a rocky start, however. At the outset of the hearing, something unexpected happened: The county's planning director, Guillermo Olmedillo, announced that unless Williamson made certain changes to his proposal, the planning department would recommend that the commission side with the residents in opposing the car dealership.

This should have been very good news for the neighbors, but Mary Williams, who had been in the hospital a few days earlier and wasn't feeling well, became confused and thought Williamson was changing his proposal. She and some others in her group asked commissioners to defer the item so they could study the changes. Other members of her group, though, told her everything was fine and they should move ahead with the hearing.After conferring among themselves for a couple of minutes, the neighbors regrouped and told the commission they were ready to proceed.

In the meantime, however, several commissioners had begun joking about the neighbors' seeming disorganization. Commissioner Pedro Reboredo mocked them by twice calling out: "Who's on first?" Gwen Margolis could be heard laughing into her microphone.

"I'd like to apologize for the little bit of confusion here," said Elva Marin, another of the residents who had been designated to speak. "We are neighbors. We are trying to get through this process together. We apologize that we don't have representation here but we couldn't afford one."

Marin then proceeded to lay out for commissioners the reasons a car dealership was ill-suited to this piece of property. Among those in her group, she was uniquely qualified to do so: As she told commissioners, for the past ten years she has been a professional planner for the county. From 1990 through 1993, she served in the building and zoning department. Today she is a supervisor in the county's General Services Administration. Marin's arguments were cogent and probative.

First she noted the existing traffic problems. In addition to the Palmetto Expressway merging with South Dixie Highway at 104th Street, recently installed express-bus lanes run along the same north-south corridor. As a result, the system of traffic lights at that intersection is very complex and often backs up cars for blocks along 104th Street as they wait to turn onto South Dixie Highway. Because the only entrance to or exit from the proposed car dealership would be on 104th Street, the congestion would undoubtedly be made worse. In addition, cars leaving the dealership could only turn right, which would force drivers deeper into the neighborhood. If they wanted to get back to South Dixie Highway, they would have to make a U-turn somewhere along 104th Street.

Second, 104th Street is listed on county land-use maps as a "minor roadway," meaning it's a two-lane street, one in each direction. The county's zoning code states that entrances and exits for car dealerships must be along "major roadways," which are defined as being at least three lanes wide -- one in each direction and a center turning lane.

Third, she explained that car dealerships present a specific and potentially dangerous problem for any residential neighborhood: test drives. Despite Ed Williamson's promise to restrict all test drives to prescribed routes within the area, Marin predicted that Cadillac customers will be speeding through their streets -- many of which have no sidewalks. Neighborhood children, she added, walk and ride their bicycles to and from the two local elementary schools and Continental park.

Finally, Marin told Commissioners, the car dealership itself would adversely affect the neighborhood and degrade the quality of life there. Williamson's plans include a four-story showroom and garage, with rooftop parking for 171 cars. A separate two-story mechanics' area would house 30 repair bays. Marin noted that neighbors would be confronted with the sounds of pneumatic tools and revving engines.

A half-dozen neighbors followed Marin to the microphone. Several said they had a great deal of respect for Ed Williamson. "I'd like to stipulate that everybody here knows he's a good man and that he's good for the community," offered resident William Kennedy, referring to Williamson's work on behalf of local charities. "This has nothing to do with that. That's between him and God, and God is going to give him his reward for that. The problem here is this is not the place for this dealership to be located."

Betty Romeo then stood up and showed commissioners a crudely drawn map of her Dadeland Cove neighborhood, complete with red dots marking each of the homes whose occupants signed her petition against the dealership. "I hope you will take note of this and help us," implored Romeo, a great-grandmother who has lived in Miami all her life but who had never attended a county commission meeting.

"I have to tell you, I was a little nervous," she acknowledged afterward. She was also put off by the commissioners' discourteous behavior. "They were very rude," she said flatly. "I felt like they weren't paying any attention to us whatsoever. The commissioners were milling around and talking amongst themselves during our presentation. It was like their minds were already made up. The only person who was really interested in us was Katy Sorenson. She paid attention."

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