Dig This

Dig This
Ronald Esserman didn't want his boat hitting bottom. Now the auto tycoon and his top-flight contractors are going to get spanked.

By Sean Rowe
After years of hard work and philanthropy, auto dealer and arts patron Ronald Esserman decided to build what could fairly be described as a mansion. He bought a patch of waterfront land in Coconut Grove and set about raising a boxy, three-story Italianate dream house.

The lap pool and Jacuzzi were fabulous. The view of Biscayne Bay from the balcony was a knockout. Esserman even had a swell next-door neighbor: Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning. But just as the house-proud paterfamilias was looking forward to his first barbecue, he discovered a major lifestyle snag: At low tide the water behind his new home was too shallow to float his 40-foot sloop. When he tried to sail the Windsong II up to his dock, she lodged on the bottom, hard aground.

So Esserman, owner of Esserman Nissan and a board member of the Miami City Ballet and the Zoological Society of Florida, did what any magnate would do: He hired tip-top professionals to take care of his problem.

Today, six months later, the Dade State Attorney's Office is considering filing criminal charges against the contractor and the environmental consultant Esserman employed to dredge a 60-foot channel across the bay floor -- essentially a rectangular hole intended to give the car dealer and his sailboat easy passage from dock to navigable water. According to county inspectors, the work was performed illegally, in violation of county, state, and federal regulations, and was done on weekends so as to avoid detection. Moreover, they say, it was done by people who should have known better.

On September 28, James Robinson, an inspector with Metro-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), caught workers on a 50-foot barge using a diesel bucket crane to dig a three- to five-foot-deep trench beside Esserman's property. Robinson examined several permits proferred by the crane operator and noted that none applied to the site where the work was being done. After consulting with his supervisor, the DERM inspector ordered the dredge crew to stop working and took photographs and water samples. He wrote in his report that the dredge operators weren't effectively preventing underwater silt clouds from forming and spreading across the bay.

Robinson's discovery followed an early-morning phone call from a fed-up neighbor.

"The bucket was slamming down into the water and picking up sand and rock and dumping it over on the shore," reports Lester Pancoast, an architect who lives just north of Esserman. "People with equipment like that tend to know the rules, but these guys weren't using turbidity barriers, and we knew that was a requirement. We could see a big plume of dirty water going out into the bay.

"The fact that they were there on weekends rather than weekdays is what really alerted me," Pancoast goes on. "I would look out of my house on Friday night and all of a sudden see this big dredge coming in, and then it disappears on Sunday night."

In mid-January DERM sent Esserman a notice of violation and ordered him to submit a plan for patching up the mess or else risk a lawsuit. Esserman has tentatively agreed to fill in the hole and replace 2000 square feet of sea grass torn up by the dredge, and also, perhaps, to perform various acts of mitigation -- a form of penance in which a transgressor helps out with environmental-enhancement projects not directly related to his original sins. But he'll be getting off easy compared to the two men he hired; consultant J. Frederic Blitstein, owner of Environmental Planning Team, Inc., may face criminal charges along with marine contractor James Royo, president of Shoreline Foundation, Inc.

Coastal dredging is a time-honored South Florida tradition. Dozens of residential islands -- including much of Miami Beach -- were created before World War II by scooping muck from the bottom of Biscayne Bay and dumping it into piles, then planting the piles with palm trees and selling it all as real estate. Willy-nilly channel digging by private homeowners was common practice throughout the Sixties, but with the advent of strict environmental regulations in the Seventies such practices grew increasingly taboo. The Esserman case represents the first time in Dade County history that a coastal dredging project has been referred to authorities for criminal prosecution, according to DERM officials and the Dade State Attorney's Office.

"It's certainly going to send a certain message, especially to people in the marine industry, that the state attorney and the Department of Environmental Resources Management aren't kidding around about this stuff," says Joe Stilwell, DERM's chief of enforcement.

"Mr. Blitstein is an environmental consultant who has worked in Dade County for years. Shoreline Foundation, Inc., is a well-established company. Anyone who's in the business of dredging should know that permits are required for this sort of thing," Stilwell continues. "The incident went beyond something that could be handled civilly, and I concluded that the state attorney really should review it."

Stilwell notes that Esserman wouldn't have been able to get either state or county permits for the dredging project, because the state-owned bay bottom in question is part of the protected Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Gary Winston, head of the state attorney's three-year-old Environmental Crimes Unit, says he's still gathering evidence and isn't certain when he'll decide whether to file charges. State law prohibits him from commenting on an open investigation, but he agrees with Stilwell that the case illustrates a "heightened sensitivity" to the health of Biscayne Bay. "Certainly it's been reflected in the fact that this case has at least been referred to our office," Winston asserts.

Winston's next move depends partly on his analysis of physical evidence and his perception of Blitstein's and Royo's state of mind leading up to the dredging. State pollution statutes prescribe a second-degree misdemeanor for persons who act with "reckless indifference" or "gross careless disregard," and a first-degree misdemeanor for those who act "willfully" in failing to get proper permits or who lie about their actions.

A more serious third-degree felony charge is applicable for violators who injure human, plant, or aquatic life or health. (A follow-up inspection by three DERM biologists found that the muck scooped up by the dredging contained a variety of plants and algae, plus creatures including snapping shrimp, sponges, tube worms, and a sea horse.)

Esserman says he was led to believe the dredging project was legal, and cites the permits held by the workmen. But the permits, which had been issued by DERM in 1992 for sites near or adjacent to where Esserman wanted his channel, were irrelevant: Two were expired and one applied only to sea-wall repair, according to an inspector's report.

Still, Esserman says he thinks county officials may be overreacting a bit. "They're zealous -- sometimes too zealous," the car dealer says of the DERM agents. "The important thing is that we're now doing everything we can to comply with the laws and regulations as they exist."

This is not the first time Blitstein has been involved in environmental run-ins. In 1990 crews clearing land for a marina and condominium illegally bulldozed 1900 mangroves on Dumfounding Bay in Aventura. Calling the incident "the largest mangrove destruction case in Dade County history," veteran DERM inspector Robert Karafel told the Miami Herald that Blitstein had admitted ordering the bulldozing in his capacity as a project overseer for the developer, Glendale Federal Bank. Blitstein denied the charge. (In the end, Glendale Federal agreed to replant some 18,000 mangroves at the site of the bulldozing, as well as 1400 other trees and shrubs at a separate locale; the bank also picked up DERM's administrative costs for the imbroglio.)

James Royo, of Pembroke Park-based Shoreline Foundation, Inc., who says Blitstein contacted him about the Esserman job, feels that his firm isn't to blame. "Renting a barge and crane -- it's like renting a backhoe, okay? You rent it and you do what you want with it," Royo says. "We weren't supplying supervision, just labor and equipment. It's true, the permit they had wasn't exactly for where they wanted to do the work. But the guys I sent out there were just workers -- a crane operator and a deck hand. They aren't in tune with how you closely examine a permit.

"A guy like Esserman and a guy like Blitstein tell you they got a permit, and what? You're gonna argue with them? I was the hired gun, and now I'm stuck in the crossfire. The whole thing has got totally blown out of proportion."

Blitstein didn't return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Esserman has hired a new environmental consultant, Mark McMahon, to prepare a plan for filling in the dredge hole and otherwise sprucing up Biscayne Bay. That report is due at DERM headquarters this week. And Esserman did manage to devise a simpler solution to his original plight: He sawed about two feet off the keel of his sailboat. Now, even without a private channel, the Windsong II doesn't bump the bottom when she sails up to the dock.

Owing to a reporting error, a photograph accompanying Sean Rowe's article "Dig This" (March 6) was misidentified. The photograph purported to show dredging machinery behind the Coconut Grove waterfront home of Ronald Esserman. In fact the photograph depicted a waterfront scene in Miami Beach. New Times regrets the error.

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