By Ryan Yousefi
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For the past couple of years developers, contractors, engineers, concrete companies, and road builders have been flooding into South Miami-Dade. The hundreds of homes they've built have sold quickly. Thousands of new residents have moved in, and their arrival has provided incentive for yet more development. It's boom time down south.
To get a sense of what's under way, draw a line on a map from Biscayne Bay westward to Krome Avenue along Eureka Drive (SW 184th Street). Everything below that line can be considered South Miami-Dade. According to the county's Planning and Zoning Department, roughly 162,000 people called the area home in 2000. By the year 2020, the county estimates the population will have jumped to 285,000, although some specific tracts are projected to grow with white-hot intensity. The neighborhoods surrounding the Homestead Air Reserve Base, for example, are expected to double in population by 2020 -- to 100,000 people.
The view from the turnpike while driving south says it all: Behold an expansive landscape of shimmering roofs over row upon row of new homes. It's as if the developers were saying, "We will build until there is nowhere else to build."
And indeed, there is nowhere else to build -- at least not in this county.
Numerous residential projects are either on the drawing boards or already under construction in South Miami-Dade, but in the past year none has been bigger or more controversial than the one known as Silver Palm, which is slated to occupy a 292-acre parcel of land running along the south side of Silver Palm Drive (SW 232nd Street) about a mile east of U.S. 1.
Residential construction giant Lennar Homes enticed Manuel Diaz, the wealthy and politically connected nurseryman, to sell this portion of his extensive agricultural holdings for an estimated $175,000 per acre, a price that only a few years ago would have been considered outrageously high. Despite the cost, Lennar stands to recoup up to five times that amount once it builds Silver Palm, which will include 1632 homes and townhouses, parks and green spaces covering 24 acres, a charter school, and nine lakes. "This is smart growth," says Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Lennar's attorney -- a former county commissioner, current aspiring county mayor, and one of the protagonists in this story of the dramatic transformation of what was, until recently, Miami's rural countryside.
Opposing the Silver Palm development is Manuel Dorta-Duque and dozens of his neighbors. Dorta-Duque came to Florida from Cuba in 1960. He looks the part of the rustic farmer -- thick shirts, mustache, sun-worn face. Like Manuel Diaz, he is a nurseryman who cultivates trees by the thousands. Also like Diaz, he's not against all development. He just doesn't want the huge Silver Palm project to be built in his front yard. (He lives on ten acres that border Silver Palm.)
Standing between the adversarial tree farmers is county Commissioner Katy Sorensen, in whose district Lennar's project is located. For a decade Sorenson has been a vigilant guardian of her South Dade constituents' rural lifestyles and an opponent of uncontrolled urban sprawl of the type people associate with Kendall. She has been a rare voice of reason on these issues, asking people to slow down and take a careful look at what this process of growth means for the county. She's the one who typically steps in when the little guy is being threatened. But she's also a pragmatist, and pragmatists understand that sometimes it makes sense to deal with the devil.
The Silver Palm deal began taking shape in late August of last year, when Lennar and Diaz de la Portilla were scheduled to make a presentation to the South Bay Community Council. The meeting was to be held at the South Dade Government Center in Cutler Ridge, and Diaz de la Portilla was looking forward to it. A seasoned veteran of land disputes, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the county's laws governing development.
With Diaz de la Portilla doing its bidding, Lennar felt confident it would win approval for the massive Silver Palm project. The county's Developmental Impact Committee had already approved it. "The proposed development will be compatible with the surrounding area and would not be contrary to the public interest," the DIC report stated. In fact the Lennar plan had passed muster on a full range of governmental concerns: environmental, public works, fire rescue, police, parks, transportation. Moreover it closely followed the county's comprehensive master plan regarding such things as density and infrastructure.
Still the project site required a zoning change from agricultural use to residential, and that necessitated a public meeting of the South Bay Community Council, one of fifteen such elected bodies countywide that hear zoning issues affecting their neighborhoods. Created in 1996, the councils were the brainchild of none other than Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, then a county commissioner and an advocate for giving residents of unincorporated Miami-Dade decision-making power over local zoning matters. The councils are more than mere symbols; they're quasi-judicial boards. Strict rules govern agendas and meetings, those who testify before the councils do so under oath, and a court reporter is always present. A council's zoning decision can be appealed to the full county commission, and from there through the state court system.