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.

Up until three years ago, a county law prohibited anyone from putting a car dealership on property zoned for industrial uses -- regardless of the size of the parcel. That ordinance, however, was changed by none other than Gwen Margolis. Why? The commissioner freely admits she sponsored the change because "Bill Graham asked me to do him a favor."

Bill Graham is the brother of U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and head of the Graham Companies, a development group with holdings throughout South Florida. Margolis recalls that Graham owned a piece of property in northwest Dade he hoped to sell to someone who wanted to open an AutoNation dealership. But the property Graham owned was zoned for industrial uses only, which under existing county laws excluded car dealerships.

So the wealthy businessman simply asked Margolis to rewrite the law. Bill Graham confirms Margolis's recollection, with the exception of one small detail. "It was a Saturn dealership," he corrects, not AutoNation.

Rewriting that ordinance, however, wasn't easy. A number of local business groups and law firms with interests in zoning matters objected to some of the proposed changes. Eventually a compromise was worked out and an ordinance was drafted. The author: Jeffrey Bercow.

Bercow claims that, in writing the 1996 ordinance, he wanted to set a standard for the minimum number of acres required for a car dealership. He decided on three. "I just picked a number out of the air," he shrugs. Which is why, he contends, his behind-the-scenes efforts a year later to change the ordinance again -- from three acres to two in order to accommodate Williamson's needs -- was no big deal.

Interviewed several weeks after the commission vote, Gwen Margolis still doesn't know what all the fuss is about. She believes the site on 104th Street and South Dixie Highway is perfect for a dealership. "It seems like the most logical place in the county to have one," she says.

Ed Williamson agrees. He says he scouted numerous locations before settling on that particular parcel as the place to relocate his Cadillac dealership. Which raises a question that was never addressed at all during the various public hearings: Why is he moving? His current dealership at 7250 North Kendall Dr. has been doing well for many years. According to Williamson, it is the thirteenth-largest Cadillac dealership in the nation. So why move? Why create such problems for residents of Continental Park and Dadeland Cove?

Money, of course.
Williamson explains that he has an irresistible offer from a private developer to buy his Kendall Drive property and turn it into an entertainment complex, complete with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters. He's already signed a contract to sell the land, though he refuses to disclose the sale price. And under a state law designed to protect the owners of franchise businesses, he can only move his dealership within a two-mile radius of its existing location. Turns out there weren't many options available to Williamson. "Certainly I would have liked more than two acres," he says, "but this was one of the only sites we could move to."

Williamson's good fortune, however, continues to be the neighboring residents' bad luck. Although the commission vote left them demoralized, Mary Williams and her neighbors have decided to press on. Their only remaining hope is to challenge the commission's decision in state court, and to that end they have raised enough money to hire an attorney, Tony O'Donnell.

"I think they have done an excellent job," O'Donnell says. "Their arguments were sound and well thought out, and they managed to place things on the record that will be very useful on appeal." O'Donnell's appeal, filed in Dade County Circuit Court earlier this month, alleges that the county commission made three fatal errors. Two of his arguments are highly technical; the third, though, is basic: The county's own ordinances state that the entrance and exit of an automobile dealership cannot be located on a minor roadway. Commissioners simply ignored this when Elva Marin pointed it out during her presentation.

An appeal can take four to six months to work its way through the system, O'Donnell explains. In the meantime, Ed Williamson is allowed to begin construction of his dealership, which he hopes to open in the fall of next year. But O'Donnell notes that the car czar is now proceeding at his own risk. If the courts end up siding with the residents, Williamson Cadillac will be prohibited from operating.

"We have a very good case," O'Donnell adds. "I've been doing this for twenty years and I'm pretty confident we will prevail.

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