Key Biscayne's municipal officials really want their new civic-center complex, which, when finished, will include a fire station, the police department, an administration building, and a recreation facility. But critics charge that village fathers want the project so desperately they've circumvented the law and ignored the protests of their own citizens.
Work crews already have constructed most of the shell of the fire station and substantial parts of the police headquarters building, as well as an annex to house temporary council chambers. They have undertaken the work without obtaining required county permits. Now, with the fire station well under way, the ability of emergency vehicles to respond to incidents on half the island will likely involve either carving up the median of a protected state highway or driving against traffic.
In plans recently submitted to the Miami-Dade County Department of Public Works, the village administration proposes an exemption to a state law protecting Key Biscayne's major thoroughfare, Crandon Boulevard, a two-way road divided by a sizable median. The law prohibits alterations to the designated historic boulevard except for maintenance or repair of underground utilities.
The new fire station will be located on the west side of the boulevard between McIntire Street and West Enid Drive. In order for fire trucks to service the northern part of the island and not waste precious time traveling around the block, village authorities are asking the county to allow them to make a cut through Crandon's median. County public-works director Aristides Rivera has not made a final decision about the request, but the head of his planning staff, Robert Owen, says the cut would be awkward given the positioning of the median. An alternative proposal by village administrators involves fire trucks traveling the wrong way down the county-maintained boulevard, according to Owen. (Village planning director Jud Kurlancheek denies that was ever a serious option.)
In either case a special stoplight would be required to freeze cars while emergency vehicles either cross the median or travel against traffic to get beyond it. Owen says the village's plans ultimately must be reviewed by the county attorney's office. "State law is very restrictive on what can be done [to Crandon Boulevard]," he says. "There might have to be a public hearing."
Opponents of the project fear the special light won't provide enough warning for tourists unfamiliar with the area, children on bicycles, or Rollerbladers. Firefighters could unwittingly endanger citizens in their rush to protect them. More to the point, opponents see the failure of the village to acquire the proper permits before beginning construction as emblematic of efforts to push through an unnecessarily large and expensive civic center (estimated cost: more than $30 million) without obtaining input from residents.
"I don't think the [village] council understands how destructive it is," says Carol Diaz-Castro. The mother of three is a member of the Coalition to Rescue Paradise, a group of concerned residents formed because they oppose the project. "We want to stay a sleepy hamlet where kids can ride their bicycles to the ice cream store without getting run over," she worries.
Supporters of the civic center, among them the mayor and a majority of the village council, insist that residents were given plenty of opportunity to comment. They claim there were more than 120 meetings and local news articles about the project. Mayor Joe Rasco also asserts that the village is negotiating in good faith with the county regarding traffic issues.
Village planners were aware they were required to obtain permits from Miami-Dade County if their project had any impact on Crandon Boulevard. They even met more than a year ago with a planner from the county's public works department to seek advice on what they needed to do. The planner, Jeff Cohen, told the Key Biscayne representatives they would need county permits, and he also suggested that fire trucks use McIntire Street rather than exiting onto Crandon Boulevard. Instead last May village administrators began construction without the traffic permits for a station facing Crandon. The county only learned the project had begun when a resident notified them. After a series of letters and meetings, they finally submitted complete plans on October 18.
Opponents suspect the village wants to force the county to approve the fire station retroactively, betting that public works will be reluctant to force changes once it is completed. "The faster they get the stuff in the ground, the harder it will be to take it out," notes councilman Jim Peters.
Peters is the only consistent critic of the project on the Key Biscayne Village Council. He believes his colleagues are in the thrall of their own arrogance. "We as elected officials have been flat-ass irresponsible to the people of Key Biscayne," he says. "The thing is, the people of Key Biscayne never knew it."
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Councilman and attorney Alan Fein reacts angrily to that charge and accuses opponents of simply being disgruntled naysayers. "This was not a secret to anybody," he insists. "[The coalition] has zero interest in finding a solution to the problem."
The coalition to stop the civic center filed a lawsuit this past September 12, alleging the project violates the village's master plan, which requires 2.5 acres of open space per 1000 residents. According to the 2000 census, that would mean Key Biscayne needs 26.25 such acres; currently it has only 14.6. Center opponents say some of the project's approximately five acres should be devoted to parkland. The group also objects to the manner in which the village rezoned the site in order to construct the project. Originally zoned for light business, the administration claimed that once the Village of Key Biscayne purchased the property, it automatically changed to government zoning without need for a public hearing.
The Coalition to Rescue Paradise is represented by attorney Vincent Damian, who helped lead a similar fight in Coral Gables. In that struggle officials began construction on an expensive administrative annex to city hall. The resulting outcry translated into a rebellion at the polls in which voters ousted the mayor and two commissioners. A new administration then stopped the project at a considerable cost to the city. Damian doesn't believe Key Biscayne's leaders have learned anything from the Gables experience. "There is something about many politicians that once they get into office they think they know more than their constituents," he notes.
The Key Biscayne coalition asked Circuit Judge Celeste Hardee Muir to halt the project. When the village council belatedly agreed to a public hearing regarding the zoning (scheduled for this past Tuesday, October 23), the judge ruled the coalition had to wait until after the meeting before she would hear the case. Lawyer Damian hopes the council will rescind the building permits, halt the project, and hold public hearings on the future of the site. He disagrees with those who say it's too late to stop the project. "They have already spent about $4 million," he points out. "Do they want to spend another $26 million for something that will be uncomfortable and unpleasant for everybody for the rest of their lives, or admit your mistake and swallow the costs?"