The neighborhood park is a thing of verdant beauty: Manicured baseball diamonds and other athletic fields. Shaded playgrounds of swing sets and sandboxes. Unsullied green spaces, woods punctuated by nature paths, quiet lakes and ponds. Tennis and racquetball courts in private condominium complexes. Rec rooms. saunas and spas. Television lounges. Pool tables.
Wait a minute. You call those parks? You bet they are, in the eyes of Dade County. So what if stucco replaces slash pines? When the county is doing the counting, any space goes, it seems, so long as people use it for recreation.
Under Dade's state-mandated comprehensive plan for the future, the county must maintain 2.75 acres of park land for every 1000 permanent residents in each of ten park districts. If that ratio isn't met, a moratorium on new residential building automatically is put into effect, and new projects must wait until more park land becomes available, either through purchase by the county or through donation by private land owners. On June 7, 1991, the county hit a deficit of 32 acres in Park Benefit District #1, bounded on the north by the county line, south by the Miami River, west by Interstate 95, and east by the Atlantic Ocean. A ban on all new residential building was declared.
Nonresidential projects, and developments already under way, such as Aventura, Turnberry Isle, Williams Island, the Waterways, and Fisher Island, were unaffected. But a handful of newer ones, primarily single-family homes and duplexes, were held up. And the Builders Association of South Florida, made up of 1000 firms across Broward, Dade, and Monroe counties, wasn't at all happy. "This really affected the little guy who had two or three houses to build," says Truly Burton, the group's associate director for government affairs. "And in this economy, any home building is welcome." The fact that the county turned away less than a dozen builders, Burton argues, doesn't mean others who knew the moratorium was in effect didn't even bother to apply for building permits.
The association immediately began to prod the county to find some new park land so building could continue. "They promised us it would be over in three months," says Burton. "Obviously that didn't happen."
The problem, explain parks department planners, is that a 1990 county ordinance, which requires developers to chip in toward the purchase of new park land, has not provided anywhere near the average $519,000 it takes to buy an acre of land in park district #1, where real estate costs are far higher than anywhere else in the county. The solution, the parks department and the builder's association agreed, was to go back and recount existing park land, this time augmenting it with all the interior recreational spaces at condo complexes and any new outdoor recreational areas, such as tennis and racquetball courts.
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The county hired planning consultant Wallace Roberts & Todd to survey everything from spas at Fairview House to teen rooms and TV lounges at Williams Island to the auditorium, mini-libraries, card rooms, and billiard lounges at Buckley Towers. The consultant derived a statistical sample from 34 of 116 potential sites. The result: nearly fifteen new acres of park land. Dade's comprehensive plan, which omits canals, lakes, golf courses, and beaches, from its park-land computations, also requires that private recreational areas be credited at one-half their actual acreage. Thus, about eight of the new acres were eligible for inclusion. Parks officials then scoured aerial maps and found another fifteen acres, of which half could be included, that had resulted from changes in the urban landscape since the last survey was conducted. Finally, Florida International University agreed to offer as park land 36 acres at its north campus, including the swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and some athletic fields.
Now the county was in business. Not only had it made up the 32-acre deficit, but it now had a twenty-acre surplus. On January 13 the building moratorium was lifted.
"These are the recreational facilities - and park space, if you will - for many of the people who live in these condos," explains an emphatic Marty Washington, chief of property management and acquisition for the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department. "We count recreation centers in public parks, and they have card rooms and game rooms and billiard rooms, so they should be counted at private sites, as well," he adds helpfully. Never mind that such convenient logic ignores the fact that these facilities are reserved exclusively for use by condo residents.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which has the final word, agrees with Washington. "It's just not a big enough issue to find a community not in compliance," says agency spokesman Don Pride. "Sure, it would be nice to have all public facilities, but in the real world it's not always practical to insist on that.