Nowhere Left to Build

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

"Developers are being greedy," another decried. "Overcrowding can and will endanger lives."

"When do we stop?" asked Susan Homyk. "Do we wait until the schools are at 300 percent capacity before we say no more building? Do we wait until we can't get down the street before we say no more?"

And finally Nottebaum: "We don't have four-lane highways with medians. We don't have traffic lights. We don't even have any streetlights. We can see the stars at night. With this development, we're going to lose the stars."

The Silver Palm site (top): In selling out to Lennar, 
grower Diaz said he'd "lost the war" over development, 
an assessment shared by rural neighbor Kim 
Nottebaum (above)
Photos by Steven Dudley
The Silver Palm site (top): In selling out to Lennar, grower Diaz said he'd "lost the war" over development, an assessment shared by rural neighbor Kim Nottebaum (above)

Lennar: love it or leave it; suddenly forgotten; fighting for air; losing the stars -- it was powerful stuff. Council members twisted and turned in their seats while Diaz de la Portilla and the Lennar executives became hopping mad. "I object," Diaz de la Portilla said over and over before injecting his own metaphor. "There were so many things stated by some of the objectors that are clearly inaccurate and misinformed," he declared. "If someone shows you a dog, and you're looking at a dog and it's white, and people keep insisting that it's yellow -- I don't know what else to say."

But the tide seemed to be turning. Council member Daniel Adams issued a warning: "We're talking about, in addition to the already-approved 50 developments in the area, we're going to add in another 1700 homes. I think we have a problem.... It's like shooting yourself in the foot."

Adams was the only one of the six council members who lived close to the proposed development. He was most troubled by the inevitable increase in traffic. "I don't live in Hialeah," he said. "I don't live in the Keys. I live within a mile of [the development] -- and that's why I'm glad you [Diaz de la Portilla] created the community councils, 'cause the people who live in the area vote on these issues. In my mind, I just can't see it [Silver Palm] -- just on the streets and the ability to move around."

Council member Leonard Anthony questioned Lennar's commitment. "What assurances do we have that Lennar ... is going to continue to be the developer of this property ... without the potential of them flipping it?" he asked.

Again Diaz de la Portilla scrambled to respond: "By having a beautiful project that is master planned, that isn't the hodgepodge of twenty acres here and twenty acres there, and that kind of thing that happened in Kendall and in other places, but a master-planned community, we would actually have something that would set the trend for quality development in South Dade."

But it was too late. The momentum had turned against Lennar and Diaz de la Portilla. The vote was four-to-two against Silver Palm. Opponents jumped for joy.

Not surprisingly, Lennar appealed the community council's decision to the county commission. It was a simple process. Lennar paid the $923.40 processing fee and Diaz de la Portilla filled out a form claiming the council's decision was not supported by "substantial competent evidence." It was so simple, in fact, that many residents wondered why they'd even bothered with the community council hearings. "What is democracy for?" Dorta-Duque asks. "What's the reason for having these local councils to guide us? So our wealthy neighbors from the north can buy up the property and do whatever they want with it?"

Diaz de la Portilla seemed to have answered that question back in 1996, on the day after community councils were established by the county's voters. "The community council allows direct input by regular folks, working people," he told the Miami Herald. "It's a type of access that should not be reserved to lobbyists and special interests. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool developer would not like to place a nuisance in his or her community -- maybe yours, but not his."

While acknowledging the irony of representing a "dyed-in-the-wool" developer before a community council, then trying to overturn that council's decision, Diaz de la Portilla stands by the appeal. "The community council is one level of review," he says today. "The county commission is another level. Every decision that the community council makes is not a good one."

During the county commission meeting this past December, Diaz de la Portilla returned to the proposal, parts of which Lennar had modified to satisfy disgruntled neighbors. For instance the company added a seventh park and an elevated berm to buffer the Silver Palm community from farmers like Dorta-Duque. Diaz de la Portilla also drew from the county's master plan and quoted from an Urban Environment League manifesto to bolster his case. He dazzled commissioners with phrases like "ahead of schedule" and "pays its own way," the latter a reference to the three million dollars or more the county would reap in new tax revenues.

In addition to Diaz de la Portilla, Lennar had lined up a range of supporters. They were retired professors, real estate developers, housewives -- African American, Latino, Asian. They praised the company for other developments in the area and for its commitment to Florida. They struck all the right chords, and the commission seemed impressed.

At noon Manuel Dorta-Duque's lawyer, Kent Harrison Robbins, approached the podium. "It looks like the whole area is going to be concrete, and that's our trend and this is one more step in that area of concrete," he argued. "We don't need it. This county doesn't need it. The people don't need it."

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