Land Grab

Why would some vacant property in dirt-poor, dysfunctional Opa-Locka lead to all-out war?

As Sailboat Cove stalled, Pinnacle's Serenity Lakes project sailed smoothly, thanks no doubt in part to a lobbyist Pinnacle hired, Yolanda Cash Jackson, an attorney with the influential Fort Lauderdale firm Becker & Poliakoff. A most fortunate enlistment on Pinnacle's part, since Cash Jackson also happens to be the City of Opa-locka's lobbyist to the state legislature.

The money situation was looking good too. The city manager signed off on a $373,000, six-year, no-interest loan. The county's Affordable Housing Advisory Board approved $185,000 for the project, and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation approved more than a million dollars. The company also expected to qualify for several million more in tax credits.

Despite vehement opposition from neighbors, the city's planning board approved Serenity Lakes. The two board members who voted against approval were soon removed from their positions by Opa-locka city commissioners.

Alex Barrera
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site
Steve Satterwhite
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site

Page Shuff is a tiny sprite of a woman with white-blond hair, blue eyes, and a wicked cackle. A well-preserved 50-year-old, she's a retired dominatrix who has, in her estimation, "spanked, whipped, and paddled doctors, lawyers, and politicians from Washington, D.C., to Miami." Her house, where she lives with four rescued parrots, has a high fence and metal covers over the windows for privacy. Directly across Seventeenth Avenue is an earthen berm that marks the edge of the Serenity Lakes property owned by Pinnacle. Shuff says when she first heard about Pinnacle's plans for low-income apartments she decided to sell her house and get out. "I was going to leave," she recounts. "I was sick and tired of the crap that goes on in Dade County." She sold most of her furniture and put a for-sale sign outside her house. Then her elderly neighbors pleaded for her help. "They said, 'We need you.' So now I'm staying," Shuff shrugs ruefully. "They're 79 years old. They can't pick up their house and move like I can."

And so the battle was joined. Shuff had some experience with Pinnacle. She and other local residents successfully stopped a nearby Pinnacle project in 2001. The area is home to mostly middle-class families, a lively group that includes a mix of African Americans, Anglos, and various Caribbean islanders. The opposition to Pinnacle was led by Shuff and a core of other women, including schoolteachers Ronda Mims and Patrenia Dozier-Washington, county employee Anne Cates (a former chief of staff to Maurice Ferré at the county commission), and retiree Gloria Williams-Creighton. The women began collecting documents and contacting public officials.

Shuff kept an eye on the property across the street and claims that Pinnacle contractors arrived in bulldozers to knock down trees and push tires and trash into the lake, all without proper permits. "Every time they'd bring the bulldozers, we'd call the cops," she remembers, adding that the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management issued eleven citations and a stop-work order. "Then [Pinnacle] went back to Opa-locka and applied for permits and Mayor [Myra] Taylor came out and said, 'They're not doing anything wrong.'"

Sean Schwinghammer, at the time a vice president of Pinnacle and intimately familiar with the Serenity Lakes project, remembers things differently. He maintains that the developer had the right to clear the property, but the neighbors made his life hell every time Pinnacle tried to get any work done. "It was garbage and they called DERM and said we were clearing oak trees," he complains. "They came out and said, 'What are you doing?' They almost impounded [the contractor's] truck. They called the mayor. It was like that all the time. I've been doing this kind of work for years and I've never run into a community like this one. The things these people have done to me are unconscionable. I was almost arrested for walking on a site we had under contract. These are not my favorite people. This is a tough group. Don't believe everything you hear."

Shuff just laughs when told of Schwinghammer's reaction. She believes Pinnacle wanted to dump trash and dirt in the lake to build up the shoreline, thus making the buildable acreage a bit larger -- and more profitable. "They wanted to get it resurveyed to stake it to their advantage, but the surveyors wouldn't do it," she alleges. "The more I saw these people operate, it became obvious you could just smell a rat." According to Shuff, the worse the stink, the harder it became for residents to obtain public documents from Opa-locka. In several cases documents they had managed to get copies of later disappeared from public files. Planning director Ervin Smith was eventually fired. His successor, Al Tate, admits he couldn't find many key documents and fears the worst.

On a May visit to Opa-locka's planning department trailer, in search of the Serenity Lakes file, there isn't much to be found in it. In fact just requesting the file raises the eyebrows of the department secretary. "Well, are you for it or against it?" she asks cautiously. Soon the file is provided by the department's assistant director, Gerald Lee.

Considering the contentious and complicated nature of the project, its file is an unimpressively, even worryingly, slim manila folder containing very little actual information. Its contents include a version of the latest site plan for Serenity Lakes, plus a couple of letters from the developer. The original application and supporting documents aren't there, although they should be.

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