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Divine Right of Way

The swath of grass is some 50 feet across, about the width NE 88th Street would be if it continued right up to the water's edge along Biscayne Bay. Walk the 130 or so feet from the pavement to the sea wall and take in the sweeping vista: the Intracoastal, the islands of North Bay Village, Miami Beach and its new condo towers in the distance. In the clear, shallow water at your feet, schools of tiny fish swirl and dart.

The best thing about this sliver of waterfront land? It's public. Stay there for an hour around sunset and you'll likely encounter two or three joggers, with or without dogs, availing themselves of a million-dollar view that's absolutely free, a tranquil minipark in a neighborhood devoid of parks.

If you drove there, you probably wouldn't park on the grass; two no-parking signs warn you against it. But neighbors in this pocket of unincorporated Miami-Dade County known as Belmar say the signs aren't enough. They want some sort of vehicle barrier added as well so that neither you nor anyone else gets any funny ideas about parking on the property. In April and May, 100 of those neighbors signed a petition to that effect and sent it to the county's public works department, which has responsibility for the land.

Neighbors say a barrier is necessary because sometimes people do park on the grass. Most often they're visiting the man who lives in the big pale-yellow house on the lot's north side. That man is Archbishop John C. Favalora, head of the Archdiocese of Miami. Though the grassy property is public land with equal access for all, some in the neighborhood think Favalora has been acting a little more equal than everyone else.

The people leading the effort to install a vehicle barrier are two neighbors who live across from the property: Betty Wright, a teacher at Miami Jackson High School, and Carol R. Cord, a member of the Miami-Dade County Community Council for the area. Wright initiated the petition drive and worked on the yearlong effort to get the no-parking signs.

Cord's involvement has been more controversial. A long-time activist and advocate for Belmar, she is the type of person who cranks out letters to public officials on subjects like storm drains, swales, and setbacks. And while her efforts have met with occasional success, some in the neighborhood deride her as a "troublemaker" and a "loose cannon." Even one of her supporters describes her as "the kind of person who pisses people off."

When it comes to blocking vehicle access to the informal bayfront park, some neighbors claim Cord is motivated by a personal vendetta against the archbishop. "This is not an issue between me and the archbishop," Cord retorts. "I took it on because it's good for the neighborhood. But because it's bad for the archbishop, he's put it on personal basis."

The land she's fighting over is public right of way, and technically it's fair game as parking for guests of nearby residents -- at least it was before the county installed the no-parking signs in April. Wright notes that before the archdiocese bought the house, people rarely parked cars there.

The archdiocese purchased the house in 1994 for $400,000 and began expanding and renovating it for Favalora. Now the home, which includes amenities such as a cherry-wood study, Italian marble floors, and a new wing that contains a chapel, was assessed this year at $561,271 -- tax-exempt, of course. Typically a home's assessed value for tax purposes is substantially below market value. Indeed, Wright remembers signing off on a variance during construction that called for $375,000 in renovations. Cord says the construction foreman told her the improvements totaled nearly a million dollars. One effect of the renovations was to eliminate potential parking spaces in front of Favalora's home.

Though Cord, a Belmar resident since 1979, complained about the use of the water-view parcel by the archbishop's contractors (specifically, for their cars, trucks, and cement mixers), the incident that really angered her was a gathering held this past July 29, when an off-duty Miami-Dade Police officer watched over the area and actually directed Favalora's guests to park behind the no-parking signs. Incensed, Cord flung a scathing letter at County Manager Merrett Stierheim, calling Favalora's use of the area "an abuse of power," "repugnant," and "un-American."

The response of the archdiocese to all this has been one of weary bemusement. Favalora would not comment for this story. Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta sees it as a problem that begins and ends with Carol Cord. And as for parking behind a no-parking sign, Agosta offers this explanation: "We've had permission from the county, usually someone out of the mayor's office," she says. "The problem is that the archbishop has no place [for guests] to park. Because he takes care of half of the lot, special permission has been given to him for special events." (The north half of the grassy property is maintained by Favalora; the other half by the neighbors to the south, Karl and Miki Mettinger.)

Agosta doesn't remember exactly who in Mayor Alex Penelas's office granted this special permission, and if the local Miami-Dade Police brass knows, they aren't telling. "This is just something we were told not to talk about," acknowledges Miami-Dade Police Capt. Randy Heller of the nearby Intracoastal station. "It's kind of an ongoing thing with the archbishop and the county."

The county officials dealing with the issue have been Alfredo Mesa, an assistant to Mayor Alex Penelas, and Jackie Bofill, executive secretary to Commissioner Gwen Margolis, whose district encompasses Belmar. Bofill sees it as a nonissue. "The archdiocese has been keeping up this property forever," she declares, despite the fact that the archdiocese bought Favalora's house just four years ago. "And the archbishop, well, we're not talking about a party animal here. And nobody has complained -- other than this so-called petition [asking for a barricade]."

Bofill questions the petition because she's seen two letters from signatories asking that their names be removed from it. Both letter writers said they did not want to be associated with an effort to keep Favalora's guests from parking on the grass. "The intent of the [barricade] plan," wrote one neighbor, "is to further harass the archbishop, who relies on that space for parking for social events."

Betty Wright, who along with Carol Cord gathered the signatures on the petition, says she worked hard to get the no-parking signs put up and believes the rules should apply to everybody. A barrier would serve that purpose, she adds, but she has heard no response from public works.

She allows that Favalora is "not abusive" as far as having guests; she estimates a maximum of one major gathering per month. But in a neighborhood under annexation pressure from Miami Shores, Wright is worried that the archdiocese might do a little annexing of its own and buy part or all of the vacant lot from the county. "I just don't want the church to take the land from the neighborhood," says Wright, a seven-year resident of Belmar. "You take that away and you take away one of the things I bought this house for." She's afraid the archbishop is taking it "little by little," and that the county will allow it "because of who [Favalora] is."

Alfredo Mesa, of Mayor Penelas's office, admits that one possible solution he, Bofill, and Agosta of the archdiocese have discussed is the sale of the land. "If it's deeded to abutting neighbors, they can do what they want with it," he explains, emphasizing, however, that no plans have yet been made to sell the land.

The specter of privatizing that panorama confirms the worst fears of neighbors like Jesus Camps, who has lived in Belmar for eight years. "I'd just like the darn place left open," he sighs. "I walk down there with my little girl and my dog, maybe four times a week."

Camps has heard the criticism of Cord over this imbroglio and calls it "political bullshit." He lauds Cord's efforts to get historic designation for the neighborhood, to lobby for a real park, and he praises her successful drive to switch the area to a closer, more responsive county police station. "She hustles," Camps says. "She works hard to make this a better place.


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