Nowhere Left to Build

It was just another housing development, but its approval marked the beginning of the end

As Diaz de la Portilla envisioned them, the community councils would give ordinary citizens a fair shot at being heard. That, however, didn't necessarily mean he and his corporate client would play fair themselves. At least an hour before the August hearing was to begin, Lennar executives, consulting engineers, and other allies packed the second-floor meeting hall at the government center. Silver Palm's critics, many of whom also arrived early but not early enough, were forced to wait on the first floor while Lennar began making its case before the council.

As the minutes passed, the opponents' frustration grew. Manuel Dorta-Duque and others were grumbling that the people upstairs didn't live anywhere near Silver Palm Drive. Finally several of them managed to talk their way past the police and into the meeting room, where council members struggled to placate both sides. "If I had a magic wand, I would make this room bigger, or we would have TVs and we would have amplifiers so everyone could hear," council chairwoman Nancy McCue said. "But we don't have the magic wand, and we are trying to do the best we can."

One of the South Dade residents who pushed her way into the meeting was Kim Nottebaum, a high school math teacher whose husband Jeff is a chemist. In the early Eighties the newly married couple purchased an acre and a quarter with a small house a stone's throw from the proposed Silver Palm development site. The cost: $54,000. A few years later they added another acre and a quarter for just over $20,000. The original home succumbed to Hurricane Andrew; its replacement is a white-walled fortress with a large atrium, a jumbo fish tank, and swimming pool.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla successfully represented 
Lennar, thanks in part to Commissioner Katy 
Sorenson, a reluctant supporter of the project
Jonathan Postal (bottom)
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla successfully represented Lennar, thanks in part to Commissioner Katy Sorenson, a reluctant supporter of the project

Like most residents in the area, the Nottebaums are not farmers. They work day jobs and supplement their income with a small nursery on one corner of their property. Their attachment to their quiet country lifestyle comes from the heart, not the bank. Their two children have grown up here. Their neighbors will tell you the same. "Most of the people are here because they've been here for a very long time," Kim explains in the soft yet stern voice of a teacher. "And they should be here. We've been here so long, I can't leave. I really love it. Just the thought of leaving my property makes me sick."

Nottebaum wouldn't be forced to leave no matter what might be built in the area. But when it came to protecting her way of life, she kept watch like a pitbull. During the Silver Palm meeting the council asked that the opposition wait outside until it was their turn to speak. Nottebaum and her cohorts refused. They had already organized a response to Lennar. She and her husband, as well as Dorta-Duque and several other neighbors, had gone door-to-door collecting 500 signatures to stop the developer. Their interests varied. Some, like Nottebaum, worried about the paved roads that were sure to be built with the new housing. Others, like Dorta-Duque, feared the new residents would complain about the pesticides and machinery used in farming. All of them were vexed by the prospect of many, many more people.

The meeting dragged on for hours, forcing the council to schedule a second session in September to accommodate those who wanted to speak in opposition to Silver Palm. Like the first, the subsequent meeting was standing-room only, and it inspired fireworks to rival the biggest Fourth of July show.

Dorta-Duque claimed at the meeting that Lennar representatives had threatened him and warned him to back off. He also accused his neighbor and seller of the land, Manuel Diaz, of forcing his non-English-speaking laborers to fill to capacity the previous meeting so opponents couldn't find seats. "The people that were there did not understand a word of what was being said," he charged, adding that they didn't even understand when to sit down: "As a matter of fact, the first word that even a dog knows is sit. I mean, how many of you have heard 'Dog, sit,' and he sits?"

Dorta-Duque's grievances with Manuel Diaz went back years. According to Dorta-Duque, Diaz had plowed roads where he shouldn't have and blocked them when he wasn't allowed to do so. "It's like plowing Plymouth Rock into the ocean!" he fumed. He'd complained to the county and to his neighbors, but to no effect. So he added his gripes about Diaz to his Silver Palm argument.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla objected. Dorta-Duque objected to the objection. And once again chairwoman McCue struggled to maintain order.

"I am objecting to the fact that this application [for a zoning change] takes absolutely no consideration to anything past or present," Dorta-Duque implored. "There's simply: 'Lennar, love it or leave it; here we are, this is what we're doing.' These streets should not be closed. We should not allow pioneers that came to Dade County, that scratched their living with their hands, to all of a sudden be forgotten."

Emotional objections poured from others as well. "Just because something is in a master plan, it doesn't mean it has to go that way," said resident farmer Jorge Cuadrado, poetically adding, "I'm just afraid that if we don't think of things wisely and just think about developing and developing, you're going to have such a density that people, for lack of a better word, are going to have to fight for air."

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