A Tree, a House, a Sign

Destroying age and beauty on Miami Beach

By the time Colleen Martin got to the house, it was too late.

Driving across the 41st Street Causeway on April 25, Martin -- a Miami Beach attorney who relocated from Oklahoma six years ago -- couldn't believe her eyes. As a member of the city's historic preservation board, she helped draft an ordinance preserving homes just like the one on 3080 N. Bay Rd. In fact the 1928 Mediterranean Revival designed by C.G. Wilkinson was to be the first historic home given permanent protection under the ordinance, designed to prevent homes built before 1942 from falling to new development. But its owner, Franz Reuther, had different plans. The wealthy German had already torn down a house next door. The city denied him a demolition permit for this one, which featured sharp, handsome lines and an original Cuban tile roof.

Reuther, however, threw Miami Beach and its brand-new ordinance the finger. That Friday afternoon, Martin arrived too late on North Bay Road -- a bulldozer had already demolished the main part of the Mediterranean mansion.

"It was beautiful," Martin says now. "So majestic. It just had such a graceful presence where it stood." The day before, the empty house had been vandalized -- window screens removed and tossed across the yard, a sledgehammer used to obliterate architectural details like brass switch plates and ornate fireplaces.

As a former assistant district attorney with a perfect win record for jury trials, Martin had already donned boxing gloves to help Miami Beach fight to save the city's older homes. When she arrived at North Bay Road that afternoon, for example, she confronted the operator of the bulldozer and told him he didn't have a permit to tear the house down.

"How do you know I don't have a permit?" Martin says the man replied. When she identified herself, he agreed to stop, but asked Martin to move so he could swing the bulldozer around.

"I wasn't really in the way," she remembers, "but I said, 'Okay.' He went like he was going to back up and then he shifted into first gear, lurched forward, and took a big swing at the last wall and it collapsed. Then he stopped the dozer, got out and ran. He almost got hit by an oncoming car as he was peeling out."

In his haste, the bulldozing renegade neglected to shut the water off in the house, making the resulting pile of debris even messier. But for Martin things had actually become messy long before. It all started over a tree.

The house at 4890 Pine Tree Dr. that Martin shares with her husband, Daniel, is another Mediterranean Revival. The house had been vacant for seven years when the Martins bought it in January 1997. Chandeliers had been stolen, homeless had squatted there, and graffiti covered walls and bathrooms. "It was totally disgusting," Martin says, hip cocked like a model, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She and her husband embarked on a renovation campaign to bring the 3600-square-foot home, which sits on a canal, back to its original glory, slowly converting the long, narrow dwelling, built in 1934, from a crack house to their dream home. The cedar ceiling in the living room was stripped of paint and restored. The front door was refinished. Wood floors were resurfaced, tiles regrouted.

To the north of Martin's home sat an empty lot slated for development. In March 2000 the owner, Breakstone Homes, told Martin it would be tearing down a sprawling banyan tree on the property to make room for a 6000-square-foot home. The tree, Martin estimates, existed long before her house was built, probably dating back to the turn of the century. Besides, as a native species, it was protected. So one day while Breakstone was preparing to survey the lot, she went over to tell employee Jorge Wolf that the 55-foot-tall tree, whose branches extend over her house, was to be left alone.

He said, "If you fuck with me and keep me from tearing down this tree, I will make your life hell," Martin alleges. "He totally threatened me. I said, 'Um, that's a third-degree felony in the state of Florida. Would you care to continue?' Then he tried to bribe me: 'Oh, just let us tear the tree down. I'll landscape your yard, I'll put palm trees up, I'll do anything you want, just let me cut the tree down.'"

Martin refused. And Breakstone, she claims, began a campaign of harassment. "They started following me, stalking me at night," she alleges. "They would have a guy in a gray Camaro parked outside my driveway. They ripped down most of my ficus hedge. They would have people coming onto my property and tapping on the windows at night."

Martin and her husband had put up a sign in front of their home that read "Help Save This Tree." Her allies in the neighborhood did the same, and Martin launched a Website urging citizens to call the Department of Environmental Resource Management to lobby for the tree's right to stay. More than 200 residents signed a petition.

At the same time Martin launched a new crusade to save a historic eight-bedroom mansion a few blocks away on La Gorce Drive. Breakstone planned to raze it. But meanwhile the "Help Save This Tree" signs kept disappearing, and Martin believed Breakstone was responsible. As more signs started popping up in her neighbors' yards, Martin says she reached an agreement with chief executive officer Noah Breakstone: Take down the signs, he allegedly offered, and the house and the tree can stay.

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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