Homestead's Dirt

In South Miami-Dade it's all in the land -- the earth, the profits, and the sweet deals

In 1993, when Homestead was struggling to recover from Hurricane Andrew, the city teamed up with H. Wayne Huizenga and Ralph Sanchez to build a world-class motorsports stadium. As with all other new development in South Miami-Dade, the deal hinged upon empty wetland, and the dirt, gravel, and crushed lime-rock needed to fill it. A crucial part of the racetrack deal, which also created the Park of Commerce, was a swap between the city and developer Florida Design Communities (FDC). The firm offered land for the Homestead Motorsports Complex and the Park of Commerce. In return the city would either pay FDC $1.4 million in cash or give the company an equivalent amount of fill by December 30, 1998. As the deadline approached, it was clear the city did not have the money to pay FDC.

Meanwhile FDC continued to develop its residential subdivisions in the city. In one of them FDC contracted with The Redland Co. to excavate a six-acre lake and use the extracted dirt for fill. In July the city ordered Redland to stop, arguing it was an illegal quarry. FDC promptly sued the city.

As 1998 drew to a close, FDC had the city over a couple of barrels: the six-acre lake lawsuit and the $1.4 million debt. The city needed to "shit or get off the pot, if you'll pardon my French," says councilman Steve Bateman.

Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver has earned a reputation wheeling and dealing his city toward economic prosperity
Steve Satterwhite
Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver has earned a reputation wheeling and dealing his city toward economic prosperity

Also, two more crucial deadlines were fast approaching. First, the city had promised a developer affordable fill as an enticement to develop the Park of Commerce, a 270-acre wedge of city-owned, industrially zoned land just west of the racetrack. Second, the city needed to provide an additional overflow parking lot for the upcoming Winston Cup Jiffy Lube 400 NASCAR race, scheduled for November 12-14 at the racetrack.

City Manager Baldwin says he and his staff figured out a plan that addressed all of those needs. The city owned four tracts of wetland south of the motorsports complex. Baldwin theorized that the city could change the zoning, use two tracts for overflow parking, and dig a lake in another to provide fill. That fill also could be used for the park and to pay off FDC.

The mayor, for one, loved the plan. "Unfortunately, we'd been dealt a significant financial burden [in the $1.4 million obligation to FDC], but I think [the 62-acre lake proposal] was the most efficient resolution that we could do," Shiver says. Baldwin calls the deal "a no-brainer."

As the City of Homestead proceeded to get state and county approval to dig the lake, South Miami-Dade's biggest provider of fill was looking over the city's shoulder. Steve Torcise, Jr., president of Florida Rock & Sand, scheduled a meeting with Baldwin in November of this past year. "He wanted to know what was happening relative to our lake," Baldwin remembers. "He came in to visit, and I explained the whole thing to him." Baldwin says he described the process to Torcise, noting that the last significant step, a blasting permit from the Miami-Dade County Commission, was set for the commission's December 15 agenda.

In retrospect, Baldwin allows, he wishes he'd kept his fool mouth shut about that commission meeting. There, into the wee hours of the morning, Florida Rock's lawyers lobbied long and hard to delay the issuing of the blasting permit. The landfill firm opposed the lake project because it could become a possible city-owned source of fill to compete with the firm's own quarry four miles south of Florida City.

Florida Rock succeeded; the commission deferred a final vote until January 21. That was beyond the December 30 deadline by which the city had to pay off FDC. If the city couldn't blast, the city couldn't give FDC the fill. They'd have to give FDC the $1.4 million in cash -- which Baldwin maintains was $1.4 million the city didn't have.

Then, as Baldwin tells it, a white knight appeared in the form of Charles Pinkney "Pinky" Munz, president of the Redland Co. that had been digging the small lake for FDC nearby (the excavation the city had stopped, prompting the FDC lawsuit). Thus, Munz was intimately familiar with the city's entanglements with FDC. He also has been a big supporter of Shiver's political career, contributing $2000 to Shiver's 1997 campaign through his corporations and family members. Baldwin remembers: "Pinky Munz came in to see me and said, 'How about if I put up the $1.4 million to FDC under an agreement with you all?'"

Sounded good to the city. After receiving an extension from FDC, the city council on January 19 voted to accept Munz's payment of their debt to FDC. In exchange Munz would be paid to excavate the lake and carry out the rest of the city's plan to provide fill for the Park of Commerce and the overflow parking for the racetrack. He'd also get to keep half of the fill.

On January 20 the city and FDC settled the small-lake lawsuit. This settlement clearly was connected to the big-lake deal. In a closed city council meeting on January 4 attorney Joseph Serota describes how he and Baldwin came up with a plan to "resolve both the [$1.4 million obligation to FDC], and by doing that, we would resolve the pending litigation." Under the terms of that settlement, Redland would be allowed to finish digging the six-acre lake. Suddenly, the small lake that the city had called a quarry was no longer a quarry -- and neither was the even bigger lake half a mile south.

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