Lazaro Albo provides a pointed new meaning to the old term "rugged individualist." For more than a year now the 62-year-old businessman and close friend of countless politicians has absolutely refused to follow the crowd -- the crowd of neighbors, city officials, and even some of those influential close friends, all of whom are insisting Albo obey the law. They want him to get rid of the coils of concertina wire that loom atop the eight-foot-high wall that surrounds his home in the Miami neighborhood known as the Roads. Concertina wire (the kind of barbed wire that adorns prison compounds) is completely prohibited in Miami, according to Joe McManus, deputy director of the city's Planning, Building & Zoning Division. You can't put it on residential or commercial property of any kind.
But since April of 1993 Albo, a well-to-do businessman involved in the cable TV industry, has flouted the city's regulations. And having delivered warnings, citations, rulings, and followup letters, the most Miami's bureaucracy could muster was a fine of $200 per day. (Currently, the fine amounts to $5000.) Not that some people haven't threatened to take more decisive action. "I told him," affirms Miami Commissioner Willy Gort, "'If you don't take it off, I'll go personally and do it myself. It looks ugly. It shouldn't be there.'" Gort, elected to the city commission this past November, says angry residents have been pleading with him to do something about the eyesore since the start of his campaign.
Packing drama into every sentence he speaks, Albo begs to differ with "my good friend Willy Gort." Sure, the sprawling gray two-story house on the corner of SW Fourth Avenue and 29th Road doesn't look so spiffy enclosed by a tall wall capped with prison wire, but Albo had the stuff installed "for my life and my family's life. Five robberies at my house. Do you think that's enough? Two times the police catch a robber inside the house. Police catch one black person on my daughter's balcony, he's ready to break the window. This is my problem. I travel to Santo Domingo [on business], and I have a family -- my wife, my two daughters, and my granddaughter. I don't want to come back and have all my family dead."
It's not that the residents of the Roads don't sympathize with Mr. Albo's concerns about crime, says Joe Wilkins, president of the Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association. "We recognize the fact that tragedy occurred. It's certainly not unique in this neighborhood. But that's not how you protect against it," argues Wilkins, who adds that no single issue has prompted more complaints from Roads homeowners than Albo's concertina wire.
The repository for the protests has been the local City of Miami Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office. When code inspector Mayda Navarro was dispatched to look at Albo's place in late April of last year, she told him what the law required. "He said, 'Okay,'" Navarro recalls, "but he did nothing. Then I sent a notice. He said, 'I'm going to remove it,' but he didn't. I took my steps. Finally, after two months I ticketed him."
Like traffic tickets, residential code violation citations can be appealed to a citizens' hearing board. Albo showed up at his hearing accompanied by the chairman of the city's Code Enforcement Board, Ruben Avila. The hearing officer, Maurice Pons, gave Albo six months to obtain a permit --for regular barbed wire. Avila says the purpose of the extension was to give his friend time to install something he could get a permit for. "He is wrong in what he's doing," the code enforcement chief acknowledges. "But Albo, he's a hardheaded guy. He's from Cuba; in Cuba it's a different law, different system, and he still doesn't swallow the laws of the U.S., let me put it that way. One problem is some of the neighbors have been kind of rude. You cannot jump on somebody for trying to protect his family.
"I asked Mr. Albo," adds Avila, "if I and some friends could go and take the fence down at no charge."
During the summer the Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association, via the association's newsletter, bestowed upon Albo its Triple Monkey award, citing his "inventive and illegal use of razor wire" in introducing the new "Alcatraz Penitentiary" home design to the Roads. "Oh yes, the three monkeys," recalls Albo, who responded to the dubious distinction by dressing up in a red cowboy hat, red pants, and a red shirt, and handing out copies of the association's newsletter at Miami City Hall.
When the six-month grace period granted by the citizens' hearing board ended this past March, Albo still hadn't completed his paperwork for a permit. One substantial reason: The law requires that owners of adjacent properties supply statements of approval before a barbed-wire permit is granted.
According to Albo, he was unable to collect those statements because three of his neighbors died. But he contends that there's really just one person behind all the complaints, a Roads resident he accuses of watching his house "like a spy" and stirring up everyone else. "You see what I have to put up with?" he says indignantly. "The people here are crazy. They have nothing to do but watch. It's my house, I pay taxes, it's a free country."
One Roads homeowner who didn't want her name published says freedom doesn't include the right to depreciate property values or to frighten neighbors' visiting relatives into thinking the area is under siege. "It's hard enough to get anybody to come to Miami these days. I have to go out of my way not to drive by his house," the woman goes on. "He believes he can do anything because he knows all the big shots in city government."
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"That's not true," responds Albo. "I put the wire on top for my family's life, and it has nothing to do with my friends' politics." The list of Albo's politically connected acquaintances, however, is a long one, loaded with familiar names. A long-time friend of Maurice Ferre, the former Miami mayor who is now a Dade County commissioner, Albo is famous for the lavish fundraisers he throws every election season. The most recent fete, to benefit mayoral candidate and fellow Roads homeowner Miriam Alonso, took place this past June. Partygoers, including City Commissioner Miller Dawkins and various other political powerhouses, spilled from behind Albo's barbed-wired walls down the entire block; the homeowner had received the city's permission to close off the street from traffic.
As administrator of the local NET office, Maggie Genova-Cordovi is the recipient of most of the neighborhood's wrath. "Believe me, I've never been so upset in my life," laments Genova-Cordovi. "I called him on the phone. I said, 'Mr. Albo, I will give you an offer. I will go personally and take the wire down; my staff will go and take it down.' He started laughing: 'Oh really? Commissioner Gort made the same offer. I tell you what. If you and Commissioner Gort come over, you can take it down.' So we made a date with him to go over there."
But Albo backed out a few days later, Genova-Cordovi says: He assured her he would hire a contractor to remove the wire. The problem was, his contractor was ill.
The wire stayed up.
"I'm going to take it down this month," Albo promised last week, when he was interviewed for this story. "I don't want to do nothing against the law." And when it comes to the fines that have accrued, Albo is similarly sanguine. "Really, I don't think about it," he says. "The City of Miami has nice commissioners, a nice manager. He'll find a solution.