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.

When the residents were finished, Jeffrey Bercow stepped forward to make his presentation, which included testimony from a number of experts whose fees were paid by Williamson. The power of money was most evident when the auto dealer's team played for commissioners an elaborate computer-generated video "tour" of what the proposed dealership would look like. It was dazzling. In contrast, the homeowners tried to give commissioners a sense of their neighborhood by driving through it with a shaky, hand-held camcorder.

The neighbors, however, were able to make an impact in other ways. Because zoning hearings are considered quasi-judicial proceedings, all witnesses are sworn in, and residents are permitted to cross-examine experts. One of those experts was former City of Miami planning director Jack Luft, who was paid by Williamson to testify that he believed placing a car dealership on this lot was reasonable and that it would have no ill effect on the neighborhood.

After Luft spoke, Karen Collins had two simple questions for him.
"When you were with the City of Miami, did you typically put residential zoning next to industrial?" she asked.

"No, we typically did not," Luft replied.
"Did you typically have car dealerships exit 100 percent of their traffic into small neighborhoods?"

"No, ma'am, we did not."
At another point during the hearing, Collins asked Williamson's architect about the height of the tallest building being proposed. She was trying to make the point that people on the roof of that building would be able to look down into the back yards and perhaps through the windows of nearby homes.

Bercow derailed the question. "Theoretically they could jump off the roof as well, but they are not going to," he said in a snide and condescending manner. Several commissioners responded with giggles.

Commissioners were not amused, though, when residents questioned the motives or the integrity of Williamson's witnesses. At one point Natacha Millan angrily chided one of the neighbors for his tone. Margolis chimed in that she found the residents' presentation "very tiresome."

Despite such obstacles, the residents still held out hope that their concerns would be taken seriously. "We are aware of the fact that there is tremendous pressure on the county staff and commissioners to facilitate the desires of influential community members," Collins tactfully noted in summary. "But the zoning rules are there to protect all members of the community, including the simple homeowner."

Now it was the commission's turn. Sorenson spoke first and argued that placing a car dealership on that lot would be a mistake. "I don't understand how a car dealership can go in there and have enough space to really exist without causing a big problem for that neighborhood," she asserted. "It's too small a piece of property."

Sorenson then proffered a motion to overturn the community council's decision and prohibit Williamson from placing a dealership on the site. Normally, if a commissioner asks that an item affecting his or her district be voted down -- as was the case here with Sorenson -- the other commissioners, as a matter of collegiality, willingly assent. Not this time.

After Sorenson's motion failed, Pedro Reboredo, who earlier had likened the residents to an Abbott and Costello skit, moved that the commission uphold the community council's decision. Margolis promptly seconded his motion. Disregarding the planning department's objections, commissioners with little debate voted and the residents were sent packing. Joining Reboredo and Margolis in favor of Williamson Cadillac were Miriam Alonso, Natacha Millan, Javier Souto, Dorrin Rolle, Dennis Moss, and Bruno Barreiro.

Sorenson and Commissioner Jimmy Morales voted against the zoning change. "I thought it looked pretty stacked from the outset," Sorenson recalls. "The Williamson people really had their act together. It had been very well orchestrated."

Ed Williamson, who had previously supported Sorenson and donated $500 to her re-election campaign earlier this year, now condemns the commissioner. "She proved to me during that meeting that either she wasn't paying attention or that she was only looking for votes in that neighborhood," he says angrily. "I thought what she did was dishonest."

In the wake of that meeting, Williamson donated $1000 to Sorenson's recent commission opponent Steve Sapp, and placed one of Sapp's large campaign signs on his current Kendall Drive dealership just prior to the election. Sorenson won handily anyway.

For Mary Williams, Betty Romeo, Karen Collins, William Kennedy, and the others who went to County Hall believing they had a strong case against Williamson Cadillac, the commission vote was a bitter lesson in local politics. "We feel so helpless," Williams laments.

Romeo recalls that after an earlier hearing, she had approached Ed Williamson and tried to talk to him. She was hopeful she might be able to persuade him to see things from her perspective. She reports his response: If she didn't want to run the risk of living next to an auto dealership, she shouldn't have purchased a house near property zoned for industrial uses. During the county commission meeting, Gwen Margolis had made a similar comment.

Not everyone, of course, can afford to buy a home in an exclusive community. Furthermore, when Romeo and her neighbors purchased their homes, car dealerships were prohibited from locating on that particular piece of property. But Williamson's connections to Margolis neatly eliminated that little problem. "It just shows how arrogant they are," snaps Mary Williams.

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