A Tree, a House, a Sign

Destroying age and beauty on Miami Beach

Breakstone kept half of that promise, she claims. The tree next to Martin's home is still there. But the 1930s Mediterranean home on La Gorce, built by illustrious Miami Beach architect John Pancoast, was destroyed, infuriating the Martins and preservation-oriented residents.

"The whole neighborhood was really upset," she says. "We had taken these liars at their word." In place of the Pancoast home, Breakstone constructed what Martin loathingly calls "a pumpkin-orange McMansion." But in front of her own house, she placed another sign. This one read "Thanks for Saving This Tree."

"They [Breakstone] stole that sign, and I watched 'em do it," Martin charges. "One late afternoon, I was out in my yard and heard 'em laughing. They didn't know I was there. They took it down, ripped it apart, and threw it in their Dumpster."

Martin called the police. And made yet another batch of signs. These read "Boycott Breakstone Homes." When about 50 signs went up in her neighborhood, Breakstone sued Martin. "They're saying the word 'boycott' is slanderous," she explains, incredulous.

An angry Martin countersued, accusing Breakstone of extortion, theft, vandalism, and trespass. The suit alleges the builder continued to throw construction debris on her property, tore down a fence, and even loosened lug nuts on her car's wheels. Both suits are still pending. Last November, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey held Breakstone in contempt for blocking the Martins' driveway and placing construction debris on their property, violating an earlier court order.

Builder Noah Breakstone says: "[Colleen Martin] happens to be a lovely person. I really think it was just a situation of miscommunication -- a huge misunderstanding. Everything's been fine as far as we're concerned. There were some issues in the past," he concedes, adding that Breakstone made substantial concessions to save the tree next door. "We went back to the people to whom we'd sold the house and said, 'We need to redesign this home to have a happy neighbor.'" Now, he says, he's not sure where his firm stands within the tangled legalese surrounding his company and the Martins. But Martin demurs, big time: "I'll tell you one thing. Everything's not fine as far as I'm concerned! They threatened the wrong person."

"I know there's a pending suit and it's probably moving forward," the cosmopolitan Breakstone says unflappably. "And my life is moving on."

Breakstone Homes, in the business of constructing new luxury single-family dwellings in South Florida, aims at the very wealthy. Its buildings start at about $650,000 and go way up. Noah Breakstone insists the houses he builds are compatible with their surroundings. "My company is just trying to be good neighbors. We're not looking to put high-rises on single-family sites, that's not what we're about," he counters. "We just deliver what people look for."

Martin remains unimpressed. "We have something so unique and it's disappearing house by house," she says. "Breakstone has been buying up lots left and right, destroying the houses on them and building zero lot-line, cookie-cutter houses. It's so sad."

But it's not just deep-pocketed developers like Breakstone that Martin and Miami Beach will be wrestling with. There are also rogues like Franz Reuther, who wants to build a huge home on his newly scraped lots. To punish Reuther and deter others, this month the City Commission passed a new ordinance that would limit any new construction on the site to the size of the original structure.

"Therefore, there's no incentive to knock down a historic house," declares Mitch Novik, head of the Historic Preservation Board, optimistically. "He's not going to be able to develop the site as he wishes. He will be restricted." The city's special master, or dispute handler, fined Reuther $16,400 for the illegal demolition on North Bay Road, a sum unlikely to harm him. Under the name Frank Farian, the German millionaire concocted the infamous Milli Vanilli scam. "What he did was a pretty callous act," continues Novik. "But these things are part of the municipal experience in terms of lessons learned." Martin's tentative forays into local politics include her membership on the Preservation Board, which established firm guidelines for deconstruction that Reuther flagrantly ignored just weeks after the City Commission passed the ordinance preventing demolition for single-family homes built before 1942. But she maintains that she's not seeking public office or notoriety as a crusader against developers.

"I just wanted to save a tree," Martin concludes, her voice nearing a screech. "[Breakstone] thinks that because they're big and have money they can do whatever they want without consequences. I'm surprised I've gotten as far as I have, but it's because I don't like to be threatened. I don't take it. I've put people in jail for 65 years who are certainly going to come after me in an unhappy way. Do you think I'm afraid of a stupid builder? I'm the only one who was willing to take the extreme harassment to do what I believe in. Somebody has to stand up to people who think they can just walk all over everybody and do what they want without recourse. And if that person has to be me, then I guess that's why I live here."

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