We Built This City

Turns out the best possible way to rescue Miami-Dade's remaining rural farmland is to incorporate as a ... city. Huh?

A black dotted line cuts into the official planning map of Miami-Dade, separating what the county was from what it has become. Inside the line, bright colors represent a sprawl of subdivisions, shopping malls, and traffic jams. Outside the line are swaths of green, what's left of the wetlands and farms that account for South Miami-Dade's fame as an environmental and agricultural mecca.

On the northern half of the map, a jumble of yellow, orange, and brown shows development cuts deep to the west, consuming almost as much space as all the green that marks the remaining Everglades. Down in the southern half of the map, much of the green is dark olive, and it nearly dwarfs the sprawl. This is farmland, once the nation's winter bread basket, where agriculture remains one of the county's largest industries. The dotted line tracks a classic and enduring conflict of American life: the struggle between the rural and the urban, between the feeders and the eaters.

In the olive-green region, fruit orchards, vegetable crops, and plant nurseries thrive. On average there is only one house for every five acres, and few of the things that urban dwellers take for granted -- sewer lines, streetlights, and road improvements -- are widely available. Inside the line, one can find an average of ten dwellings per acre and all the conveniences and ills of modern urban living, from fast food to street crime.

The dotted lines were first put to paper in the mid-Seventies as a tool to manage growth. Planners wanted the county's population to increase in an orderly fashion within the lines, so they drew them as a mechanism they hoped would serve two seemingly irreconcilable goals. They wanted to preserve agriculture and wetlands, whose importance for the economy, drinking water protection, and flood control became more apparent with each passing day. At the same time, though, the lines could be moved, nibbling away at the green in small bites to accommodate population growth.

For a good while it worked. The lines moved frequently until the late Eighties. There was plenty of land for affordable suburban dream homes, each with a garage and its own small patch of green, as well as ample farmland to keep agribusiness humming. By the Nineties the land supply had dwindled, state regulations grew stricter, and movement of the line became less frequent.

But pressure has been mounting to devour more of the open space. Developers look over the line and see a different kind of green, even as the agricultural and environmental land base becomes ever smaller, more isolated, and less sustainable.

For more than two decades, a tireless band of South Miami-Dade activists has fought off efforts by developers to move the line. They live in an area called the Redland, whose boundaries they locate from SW 168th Street all the way down to SW 360th Street, past Homesteadand Florida City to the west -- 68 square miles all told. Many of these activists work in agriculture. Some are retired or have part-time jobs. All cherish a vanishing rural lifestyle. Despite much success, in recent years it has become apparent they don't have enough manpower to stop the typical progression whereby the colors on the map swallow all the green.

So, beginning a few years ago, these Redland activists hit upon an idea that apparently no one has ever tried. To save the farmland, they want to incorporate. If the activists get their way, they will create the largest municipality in Miami-Dade County, all of it presently outside the line.

The incorporationists are unsure whether what they create will be called a city, town, or village, but believe only by wresting control from an unaccountable county commission can they hope to halt development and nurture agriculture by assuming complete local power over planning, zoning, and code compliance. Where most municipalities dream of tall spires and great public works, the would-be founders of the municipality of the Redland long to keep their roads unpaved and services to a minimum. They want to form a city to avoid becoming one.

Whether their scheme works will largely be determined during the next six months, as the drive to make the Redland a city wends its way through the county's cumbersome and politically volatile incorporation process. The stakes in the battle are nothing less than the long-term survival of South Florida's agriculture, the future development of South Miami-Dade, and the dreams of new riches for politically connected developers.

The two sides first will fight it out before planning boards and the county commission. If the proposal clears these steep hurdles, the fate of the Redland ultimately will rest with voters in the designated area. But after years of rancor between preservationists and the forces of development, it's doubtful the debate will be confined to official forums. Disputes over the future of this land turned personal a long time ago. Just as development threatens to cross the line, so is the Redland incorporation likely to spill over into the letters pages of local newspapers and the parking lots of public hearings. And if the past is any indicator, the police may need to be brought in as well.

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