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At this inaugural meeting of a new Miami Beach homeowners association, the information table held cookies and juice as well as sign-up sheets where neighbors could leave their names and complete a questionnaire about their interests and concerns.
I was there because it was my neighborhood. One of the organizers had dropped off an informational flyer at my home, which is how I learned about the controversial issue that had prompted formation of the new group. The Miami Beach planning department and the city's advisory planning board had endorsed a proposal to change the zoning along the south side of 40th Street between Chase Avenue and Pine Tree Drive, near the heart of the area known as Mid-Beach. Its current zoning is residential. The proposal would change it to something called "RO/Residential Office." This was being done, according to the flyer, to allow houses of worship where once only single-family houses had been allowed.
The flyer's language was fashioned with care, and for good reason: Indelicate phrasing could have easily resulted in a charge of prejudice. "Our immediate concern is preventing the rezoning of the south side of 40th Street," it read. "The change was requested to permit several presently nonconforming uses by Orthodox Jewish religious groups to continue to function at their present locations.... While the need of the Orthodox Jewish community for sites on which to conduct religious-related activities is paramount, it is premature to conclude that the only location for these facilities is on the south side of 40th Street."
The meeting, held in an auditorium at the Miami Heart Institute, got under way the evening of June 21. Gary Hunt, the "provisional" president of the fledgling homeowners association (technically it didn't yet exist), coaxed everyone into coming up close to the stage so he could be heard. While he was doing that and fiddling with an enlarged map of the neighborhood, a number of late arrivals marched in and sat down right in front. All were men. All wore yarmulkes.
Hunt, an easy-going 47-year-old businessman, opened by explaining that the real problem with the proposed zoning change was not that it would permit Orthodox Jews to turn private homes into synagogues but that it would also permit office buildings up to three stories tall along this edge of the residential neighborhood. (The north side of 40th Street includes a post office and a series of parking lots supporting the businesses that line 41st Street.)
No sooner had Hunt begun a description of past zoning problems along 40th Street than one of the late arrivals abruptly interrupted to challenge the historical accuracy of Hunt's narrative. The outburst was so unexpected, so loud, and so obviously antagonistic that it was shocking.
The late arrival ignored entreaties to let Hunt continue. He was argumentative, combative to the point of being rude. And soon he was joined by other Orthodox men in the auditorium.
Within minutes Hunt had lost control of the meeting and pandemonium reigned. A dozen people were shouting at once, leveling all sorts of nasty accusations: This wasn't about zoning, it was about being anti-Orthodox. The so-called homeowners association was really a conspiracy against the neighborhood's Orthodox Jews. Not everyone had received the flyers announcing the meeting. One man bellowed, "If you had a mezuzah on your door, you didn't get a notice!"
Two of Hunt's fellow organizers, Bill Wax and Carol Herman, stepped forward in an attempt to come to his aid, but they too were shouted down by the Orthodox men in the crowd. Herman, trying to speak over the cacophony, seemed close to tears. "Excuse me!" she cried out at one point. "I have the floor!"
Before long her supporters in the audience fired their own verbal salvos: The Orthodox had lied to the city about using single-family homes as shuls, or synagogues. City commissioners always helped their own, and everybody knew the city commission was Jewish. If the Orthodox wouldn't oppose the zoning change, they could form their own homeowners association.
What had been planned as a friendly gathering of neighbors with a common problem degenerated into a confrontation that quickly turned ugly.
Who knows what might have happened had Rabbi Donald Bixon not managed to gain the floor. A boyish-looking 30-year-old who leads the Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Miami Beach, Bixon's eloquent appeal for unity and mutual respect temporarily lowered the temperature. Long enough, at least, for the warring sides to appoint an ad hoc committee that would explore possibilities for compromise.
With that action, the meeting sputtered to a disorderly close amid fresh bouts of arguing and a palpable sense of mistrust. Many of the approximately 65 people present, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, swarmed to the information table to plunk down $25 for membership in the new homeowners association.
"I think both sides felt threatened," Rabbi Bixon told me later. "Both sides felt that something they'd worked very hard to achieve was about to be taken away." He described the needs of Mid-Beach's substantial population of Orthodox Jews, whose religious codes require that they walk to their shuls on the Sabbath. That limitation, coupled with restrictive zoning in the area, had created the need for a specially zoned district where single-family homes could legally be used as synagogues.
"We all have the same concerns," he added. "We want our investment in our homes protected. We want a place where our children can grow up and feel comfortable in the community. There's the ability for both sides to work together."
Hopes of working together suffered a setback just a couple of days after the meeting, however, when Gary Hunt and his cohorts scrapped the idea of forming a homeowners association. Presumably membership in such a group would be open to all property owners in the area, which meant the zoning issue would split neighbors as divisively as it did at the organizational meeting.
Instead Hunt and his like-minded associates would form a private advocacy group, Concerned Citizens for the Preservation of Single Family Zoning. Another flyer was circulated throughout the neighborhood, this one laying out in great detail the Orthodox community's successful efforts to have a zoning change approved by the planning board, the illegal use of private homes as shuls while the city turned a blind eye, and the ominous consequences of inaction: "Individual homeowners will be free to use their homes for nonconforming uses, particularly religious uses of all types, and then petition the city for a change in the zoning in order to confer legitimacy upon their illicit use."
An informational meeting was set for June 26. At this point in the developing storm I switched hats from homeowner to journalist in an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest. I was unable to attend the June 26 meeting, but by all accounts it unfolded with grim determination. The zoning change was believed to be a done deal. The "Orthos," as their opponents called them, were thought to be a powerfully influential group, which prompted one participant to admit, "Friends warned me: Don't go against the Orthos."
The only option that made any sense was unwavering opposition. If the city commission wouldn't listen to them, then they'd take their fight to the courts. Those at the meeting enthusiastically donated hundreds of dollars toward hiring Miami attorney Tucker Gibbs to represent them.
As money was being collected, one of the original organizers, Bill Wax, pointed out that the very next day the ad hoc committee was scheduled to meet. He was a member of that committee, an appointment he'd earned after valiant efforts to make peace during the shouting match at Miami Heart Institute. Now he asked his non-Orthodox neighbors whether there was any possibility of reconciliation. "There was a vote that there would be no compromise at all with the Orthodox," he told me a few days later. "They felt the area should remain single-family and that the Orthodox have been operating illegally and the city shouldn't kowtow to their needs by legitimizing them. The community feels that the Orthodox have been, how would you say it, underhanded? They've used single-family homes illegally [as shuls] for years. There's a complete distrust of the Orthodox."
Though Wax, a 42-year-old new-media entrepreneur, has lived in Miami Beach less than a year, he was fully aware of the history of controversy surrounding the city's Orthodox Jewish community. Back in 1980 the city made its first attempt at enforcing zoning codes by issuing a criminal cease-and-desist order against the Grosz family, whose Prairie Avenue home had become a popular shul that attracted dozens of faithful for morning prayers and Saturday services.
A legal battle ensued that dragged on for years and in 1984 ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which let stand an appeals court ruling upholding the city's right to enforce its zoning laws, even if they impinged on the Groszes' exercise of religious freedom. The assistant city attorney who handled the case boasted to the Miami Herald: "Now everybody knows where the city zoning stands."
Well, not quite.
In the years since then, the Grosz family has continued hosting religious services in defiance of the law. In fact, they have dramatically enlarged their house to accommodate more people. The city has taken no enforcement action, perhaps because no one wants to suffer the bad publicity sure to result from ordering the arrest of kindly old Rabbi Armin Grosz.
In 1990 some 60 Orthodox families jointly bought a home on the south side of 40th Street and converted it into a shul known as Congregation Anshei Gezah. It took a few months for city officials to catch on, but when it became obvious a religious institution was operating on a street zoned for single-family residences, they threatened to take legal action. With typical bureaucratic speed, that didn't happen until four years later, when the city finally filed a lawsuit against the congregation. Today that lawsuit remains unresolved and the Orthodox families continue to use the home as a place of worship.
The protracted nature of that litigation, in fact, contributed to the city's willingness to look anew at the zoning on 40th Street, which eventually led to the proposed zoning change that provoked the eruption of anger last month, anger that Bill Wax, Rabbi Donald Bixon, and others on the ad hoc committee hoped to ameliorate.
"We met at Bagel Time," recounted Rabbi Bixon, referring to the delicatessen on Alton Road just south of 41st Street. "We kicked around different ideas -- how we could have a meeting of the minds, what would be the best way to have everyone's interest represented. We pushed for having one homeowners association, not one for Jews and one for non-Jews or one for non-Orthodox, but one group. There was a feeling that the religious institutions could work to improve the neighborhood. We could request that 40th Street not be zoned for offices. We left it that we'd try to approach the city commission and Mayor [Neisen] Kasdin and have a preliminary meeting or a workshop."
After talking with the rabbi, Kasdin was receptive to the idea of arranging a broader discussion. He even set a date: Monday, July 19. "Emotions were running very high," the mayor acknowledged. "I was going to call a meeting of the neighborhood group and the planning director to discuss alternatives, other ways of approaching it. But apparently what happened was there's been a complete split in the neighborhood. It's now two separate camps."
News of that split disappointed Rabbi Bixon. "Things could have been resolved among neighbors," he said. "I think it's a big mistake for the community because a community is always stronger when people work together."
Bill Wax was also disappointed. "I've been a moderate voice in this affair," he recalled last week, "but I was a minority voice of compromise. I still hope we could come to some agreement by way of good communication with the city, the religious groups, and citizens. I really wanted a workshop to happen with Mayor Kasdin. But fear was the problem. That's the whole problem."
On July 10 Concerned Citizens for the Preservation of Single Family Zoning met again. Attorney Tucker Gibbs reported on an important development that had occurred late in the week. The proposed zoning change, scheduled to come before the full commission July 20, would be delayed so city officials could modify the plan in a way that might satisfy both sides. That, of course, would require some communication between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. Gary Hunt says it's a possibility, though it won't likely be neighbor-to-neighbor. It'll be attorney-to-attorney.