First Build

Since moving here just over a year ago, Sylvester Stallone has endeavored to become Miami's nouveau civic icon. He made his debut by plunking down eight million dollars on a bayfront mansion next to Villa Vizcaya, then wasted no time in casting himself as a patron of the arts and charitable causes. But while many local officials have been genuflecting in Stallone's general direction, he hasn't exactly engendered warm feelings at one particular agency.

That agency would be the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). During the past year DERM inspectors have discovered several instances of illegal construction on the movie star's property. This past August, for instance, builders constructed a pier before Metro regulators had completed their review of the plans and given the final go-ahead. That same month, workmen rebuilt a boat dock that exceeded the size regulators had permitted. Not long afterward, inspectors noted that Stallone had not acquired permits before installing boulders and sand along a concrete seawall. And in March of this year DERM officials found that a boat lift, a jet-ski lift, and a catwalk had been built on the property, also without permits.

The regulators say the blame for these violations lies not so much with the actor as with one of his contractors. One of Dade's pre-eminent marine contractors, Richard Bunnell, president of Bunnell Foundation, Inc., counts among his past clients prominent attorney Dan Paul and former Miami Dolphin Nick Buoniconti. He also is the director of an effort to build the Manatee Halfway House at the Miami Seaquarium and has been a benefactor of Shake A Leg, a program for handicapped sailboat enthusiasts.

DERM officials have no quarrel with the quality of Bunnell's work. They object to the way he seems to skirt regulations to accomplish it. The agency's records indicate that Bunnell has been cited for at least fifteen violations in the past five years -- not including the recent Stallone projects -- almost all of them for doing work without proper permits. DERM assistant director Carlos Espinosa says that as far as he knows, no other marine contractors in Dade have violated permitting codes as consistently as Bunnell.

Bunnell corrects most of his violations by paying a fine (usually $500 per incident) and applying for an after-the-fact permit, for which he must pay twice the amount he would have paid had he gone through the normal permitting process. The contractor, for instance, applied for and received after-the-fact permits for Stallone's pier and seawall projects. He has applied for, but hasn't yet received, an after-the-fact permit for the boat lifts and catwalk. Regulators refused to issue an after-the-fact permit for the extra-large dock, saying it never would have been allowed in the first place. They penalized the contractor by ordering him to plant 1000 square feet of native coastal wetland vegetation on Stallone's property and to pay a $12,500 fine in the form of cash and more plantings.

"We've had a number of meetings with Mr. Bunnell for a number of different projects, and we've indicated to him that we're not happy or satisfied with him starting work without permits and going beyond the scope of the permits," says Carlos Espinosa. Because the standard penalties don't seem to be having the desired effect, Espinosa adds, his agency might "have to take steps to curtail this. -- continuous pattern could be grounds for revocation of a [contractor's] license," the DERM official says suggestively.

Bunnell argues that the regulatory process is simply too slow. "When you tell a guy it's going to take seven months to get a permit that should take a month, in my opinion most of it is the dragging of the feet of environmental regulators, and it's real hard to stomach," says the contractor. "One of their favorite ways to regulate is to wear you out. They do it by stonewalling and by not responding and then by responding partially." Often, he adds, he has received verbal approval for a project and is only waiting for "the paperwork" when he begins construction. "It's not something you should do -- I'm not saying you should do that," he says. "But when it takes three weeks to get something typed...."

In the case of Stallone's pier, for example, Bunnell admits he began building before he had received a final letter of approval. But, he contends, he didn't make a move until two DERM workers had performed an on-site inspection and deemed the project feasible. "We wanted to get the darn thing finished," the contractor complains. "So we put in some piling because we had the piling on-site." In some instances, Bunnell asserts, he's sure he violated no laws. He concedes, though, that he usually does not contest the citations. "What can you do, fight city hall?" he asks. "It's a stacked deck." As for who eventually pays the penalty, Bunnell says sometimes he picks up the bill, and sometimes the client "understands the situation" and agrees to take care of it. "It's not so much the amount of the fines as the the fact that we get them," the contractor says. "I'm not happy about these violations, [my clients] are not happy about them. It doesn't look good on my part, but that's not the whole story."

(Calls to Stallone's management company in Philadelphia went unreturned.)
Bunnell has met with DERM's directors "out of frustration" and has urged them to hire more people to process permit requests and to hold occasional meetings with marine contractors "to chew the fat." In response to his complaints, DERM has collated a list of his recent projects and recorded the time it has taken for regulators to approve the work. "I think we've attempted to streamline the process, and in many ways we've responded quickly to many of the projects he's been involved with," Espinosa says. "But the fact of the matter is everybody has to follow procedures.


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