The future hopes and aspirations of thousands of South Miami-Dade residents will come down to one county commission meeting likely to be held next week. On Tuesday, September 25, commissioners are scheduled to decide whether the residents of the area known as the Redland can hold a vote to incorporate themselves as a city. If commissioners accept the proposed boundaries, fewer than 20,000 people could create what would become the county's most sprawling municipality. The proposed city, a rural region populated by farmers who grow everything from tomatoes to orchids, encompasses about 44,800 acres from SW 168th Street all the way down to SW 360th Street, much of it west of Florida City and Homestead. (The area draws its name from the coloring of lime-rich marl deposits in its soil.)
Unlike any other municipality, a Redland municipality would lie entirely outside the county's urban development boundary line, where zoning allows just one home for every five acres in an effort to curb suburban sprawl. At stake, incorporation activists say, is the long-term health of agriculture, one of Miami-Dade's largest industries and a vital ecological buffer that provides flood control and protects the Everglades. Just as important, they say, is a rural lifestyle that cannot be found anywhere else in South Florida. If the incorporation is successful, it would accomplish something unique in the nation: a city created for the express purpose of preserving a rural setting. "We are all here for the same reason: We love it," said resident Ellen Perez at a recent public meeting. "There is no other place like this in the country."
Many who have spoken in favor of incorporation say they came to the region fleeing the high-density development that has devoured farmland in other parts of Miami-Dade County. "I moved to the Redland in 1954 to escape Hialeah," said Sidney Robinson. "The only way we can control our destiny is to incorporate and elect people who are interested in saving our livelihoods of agricultural for future generations."
The Redland's representative on the county commission, Katy Sorenson, says there is widespread support among residents. Despite that, incorporation advocates face an uphill battle before the commission. Attacks are expected from an array of critics. Powerful developers, bankers, and farmers are already organized in opposition. The neighboring low-income communities of Princeton and Goulds say they fear a new City of Redland could impede their economic development. Florida City wants a portion of the land for itself. Most recently a group of large-scale farmers has formed an organization called Citizens Against Redland Incorporation (CARI). According to Richard Alger, a potato farmer who acts as president of CARI, more than $100,000 has been pledged to combat the proposal. And the group hired attorney Miguel de Grandy, an influential former state legislator, to lobby county commissioners. "If you look at it, there is no reason [commissioners] should approve this," says de Grandy, who plans to assail every aspect of the incorporation effort: alleged flaws in the bureaucratic process, the new town's proposed budget, even the basic assumption that agriculture is threatened.
Leaders of local community development corporations from Princeton and Goulds insist that the historical boundaries of their unincorporated communities stretch into more than 10,000 acres the Redland wants, yet they have not furnished official documentation to back their claim. They also fret that with ongoing efforts to incorporate the Cutler Ridge area, low-income neighborhoods such as theirs will become further marginalized. At a public meeting in June, shouting matches erupted between residents of Goulds and Redland incorporation advocates, who challenged the boundary claims made by Goulds and Princeton community leaders.
In the end a county boundaries committee recommended a compromise: Should the incorporation vote succeed, those who live in the disputed area would vote a second time to decide if they want to be part of the new city. Despite that recommendation Goulds and Princeton leaders promise to pack the commission chambers for the debate.
Incorporation partisans fear they will be painted as wealthy, largely white weekend farmers who want to exclude their poorer black neighbors. "We are not Coral Gables with tractors," insists Mary Motes, an orchid grower who proudly shows off the tan lines that come from working outdoors. "We are an agricultural area, and we don't wish to divide ourselves from our friends in Goulds for any other reason than that."
Many believe the most forceful objections to incorporation will come from big corporate farmers who may hope to sell their tracts for future subdivisions at a substantial profit. Many of these landowners do not actually live in the area and so will not be eligible to participate in the incorporation vote, a fact that angers them. "We're going to bear a great portion of the cost of the Redland government," argues CARI president Richard Alger, "but we won't be able to complain about it."
Commissioner Sorenson counters, "These are the speculators who have bought land and want to turn it into big money. There's a lot at stake."
The incorporation proposal also has won approval from a county planning advisory board, though the board rejected last-minute recommendations from Miami-Dade County's planning department that would have allowed county government to retain authority over Redland land-use issues. "The idea of incorporation is to have local control over land use," notes Sorenson. "If you're not going to have it, what's the point?"
The county's planning department takes issue with the proposed Redland boundaries, arguing that the new city should end at SW 288th Street, which would shave off 7700 acres, some of which is coveted by Florida City. The county's rationale: Extending the city limits to SW 360th Street would create an awkward pocket of unincorporated land that would complicate the delivery of county services. Incorporation activists note that the proposed city has agreed to continue to use the same county police, solid waste, and fire rescue services that the enclaves do. Supporters also say they need a large land base to create a sustainable agricultural community; losing 7700 acres could undermine that effort.
Emotions have been running high between those who support incorporation and those who oppose it. Many involved have battled one another over zoning issues for more than twenty years. In particular members of an advisory committee spearheading incorporation have been feuding publicly and contentiously with Bill Losner, a Homestead banker and CARI consultant. Losner once sat on the committee but resigned after constant battles with his fellow members.
At a planning advisory board meeting in late July, one Redland resident summed up the strongly held beliefs of those who support incorporation. "We have an opportunity to preserve the only tropical agricultural area commercially farmed in the United States," said David Goldman. "In order to do that, you will have to rise to the challenge of not accepting proposals from interests who do not wish to see that preservation. That will be difficult."
He then went on to detail the forces working in opposition, including the county planning department and leaders from Goulds and other surrounding areas. "With many people you will not be popular," Goldman told advisory board members. "But you will have done something both historic and very difficult -- to put the preservation of agricultural land in the hands of the people who live within that area."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.