By Michael E. Miller
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A swarm of Lennar opponents followed. Many of them read the same script they'd prepared for the community council meeting. Their pleas lasted for hours but the commissioners were unswayed. They asked few questions, and seemed to know where they were headed. In recent years the county commission and community councils alike have laid the groundwork for exactly this type of project by steadily shifting from agricultural zoning to commercial, residential, and mixed-use. While all the commissioners understood the issue at hand, and its emotional component, only Jimmy Morales said it aloud: "Sounds like today we're basically sounding the death knell for agriculture inside the Urban Development Boundary line." (Outside that line, along the western edge of the county, development is restricted to one residence per five acres.)
Around this time at the meeting, Katy Sorensen took a deep breath. Despite nearly a decade on the commission, she still looked innocent enough to be the lead in a high school play. Her appearance, though, belied the toughness she'd acquired during years of wrangling over growth issues -- almost always in opposition to sprawling new residential developments. But with Silver Palm, Sorensen had to face a new reality: Her commission district is in transition.
Research shows that Miami-Dade agriculture is under intense pressure. A recent University of Florida report (the Miami-Dade County Agricultural Land Retention Study) identified several complex problems: Cheap foreign imports have undercut the competitiveness of local farmers; the independence and diversity of farmers and growers has created a fragmented industry without cohesion or clout; and the influx of new residents continues unabated. "Population growth and concomitant urban development appear inevitable for Miami-Dade County," the UF researchers noted. "As the supply of developable land dwindles, prices will undoubtedly increase. These price increases ... will motivate landowners to convert agricultural land to higher-valued uses."
The UF study is borne out by the transaction between grower Manuel Diaz and Lennar. Last August, in a letter to the South Bay Community Council, Diaz offered this analysis: "I fiercely and successfully opposed development in our area for decades. I finally realized that population growth is inevitable. I could win battles, but in the end I lost the war."
Now the war had been brought to Sorenson. But Lennar's project proved to be an elusive enemy, and difficult to attack. It was sound. It fit with her staff's recommendations for the area: parks, green space, a school, walkability. "South Dade is the last frontier in Miami-Dade County for development," Sorenson began. "It's going to be developed. We can either do it well or we can do it in a haphazard way. While I have a lot of sympathy for people who live there and who are used to the rural lifestyle, it's just simply not going to continue forever. So for me, the best thing to do is to develop responsibly, develop it well, with an adequate infrastructure and facilities that we need. I think this project is really an excellent project. It has all the things we have been looking for as a commission."
She steadied herself and continued: "You have heard me many times not allow development or object to development in South Miami-Dade. But to me, this is the area that is next. Luckily we have some responsible developers and their representatives who are willing to make it a good part of the community.... To me, this is an example of good, well-thought-out development, so I move to approve the application."
The vote: eleven-to-one in favor of overturning the community council's decision and approving Silver Palm.
The lone dissenter was Jimmy Morales. The Harvard-educated commissioner, who is also running for county mayor, thought the Lennar proposal was excellent, but he worries that development is moving too fast, that infrastructure won't be able to keep pace with the rate of growth. "It's a nice project, but that doesn't mean it was the right thing at the right time," he says today. "There's a difference between pushing it along now and waiting until it made sense to do it."
Sorensen shares some of Morales's concerns about infrastructure, but she remains firm. "We wanted to have kind of the big-picture perspective," she says. "Not Kendall, not urban sprawl. We wanted thoughtful urban design, communities that would retain their value. We can't put up a stop sign and say nobody can come anymore. We don't have those kinds of laws."
Reaction among the neighbors living near the proposed development has been mixed. Kim Nottebaum and her husband seem resigned to the inescapable urban surge. "Let's face it," she says. "The county wants development. The more houses they sell, the more taxes they can collect. Why wouldn't they? They're not making any money off these farms.... If Lennar is going ahead to build a development, it might be okay. Chances are if we push them and win, a worse [developer] may come along. I hate to say we're beaten, but we're probably beaten on this one."