Nice House, Rotten Spot
Doing a little house hunting? Consider this nearly completed beauty: two stories, 2500 square feet, barrel-tile roof, three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, spacious living room, dining room, kitchen, and Florida room, cathedral ceilings, patio, garage, waterfront views, adjoining never-to-be-developed land in a quiet, upscale residential neighborhood. Approximate asking price: $200,000.
Sound good? Well, you can't have it. Not now, maybe never. There's a little problem with the house: It never should have been built. Metro-Dade issued the building permit in error.
According to a South Florida Water Management District lawyer, that agency has an easement on most of the property, which is located in unincorporated West Dade, at 13200 SW Sixth St., on the north side of the Tamiami Canal. (We didn't say ocean views.) Scott Glazier, an associate attorney with the Water Management District, explains that the state secured access to the canal at that point because the property is immediately upstream of the SW 132nd Avenue bridge. During flooding emergencies, trees and other debris that fall into the canal may lodge on the upstream side of bridges and pipe crossings, and engineers must be able to get to the canal with cranes and drag lines. The easement -- i.e., the Water Management District's right of access under certain circumstances -- extends 130 feet north from the center of the canal, a distance that includes the entire house and most of the property.
MarioPino, owner of a window-manufacturing business, bought the land in 1992 at a U.S. Marshal Service auction of confiscated property. It had belonged to drug smuggler Leonel Martinez, who was imprisoned in 1990. Pino, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1967, entered a partnership with general contractor Ubaldo Blanco to build the single-family home, according to Pino's son Jorge. (Jorge Pino sometimes serves as translator for his father, who doesn't speak English.)
The partners applied for and received a county building permit in September 1994 and began construction two months later. They had just installed windows in the structure when, on February 7, the builders received a stop-work order from the Metro-Dade Building & Zoning Department.
The house was 90 percent completed.
"This is a situation I've never seen before, where a house was built completely over the easement," admits Metro-Dade's supervisor of zoning processing, Jose Heredia, whose department reviewed the building plans.
Where did the process go awry? That depends on who you ask.
Heredia, who has been a building & zoning employee for more than 27 years, says blame should be shared by his department and the permit applicants, Pino and Blanco. He says the plans the developers submitted didn't show the easement. But, Heredia adds, the processor who reviewed the plans should have double-checked the documents against Metro's plat A the official map that shows every lot boundary and easement in Dade. Such double-checking is customary with every permit application, Heredia says. "The processor's answer to me is that he doesn't know why he didn't check it," concedes the Metro official.
Gilbert Betz, an attorney for the developers, says his clients did nothing wrong, and insists their plans included the easement. "They had proceeded in good faith based on the fact that they had all these experts who gave them a clean bill of health to complete the construction," Betz complains.
Since receiving the stop-construction order, Blanco and Pino met with the South Florida Water Management District at least twice in an effort to work out a settlement. Both sides discussed several different possibilities that would spare the house, including fortifying the canal banks to provide more room for emergency equipment, and conducting the cleaning operations from the other side of the canal. (Both ideas have been rejected.) A proposal to move the house farther away from the canal bank was also rejected; because the house is built on pilings, such a relocation is impossible, Betz says.
The developers' most recent offer was that the district allow the house to remain in place with the caveat that in an emergency, the structure could be demolished, in whole or in part, to gain access to the canal. Pino even said he'd have his son live in the house to ensure that the district would not face recalcitrant occupants.
Again, the response was no.
The owners can still formally ask the district to release its property interest, but their chances for approval don't look good. In January 1994 the agency's governing board denied a similar request filed by the owners of a parcel of land immediately west of Pino's.
"Right now we're in the process of regrouping and finding what the best step will be," says Betz, Pino's attorney. Adds Richard Alayon, another lawyer working on behalf of the developers: "We have not presented any case against Metro-Dade. We have been trying to get the district to do what's logical and fair. Mr. Pino is not a screamer. Mr. Pino is not someone who's going to be filing lawsuits against everybody and their brother.
"The funny thing about this is it's not about money," Alayon goes on. "[Pino and Blanco] are going to lose money even if they sell the house." Jorge Pino says the developers have already sunk about $160,000 into the property purchase and construction. A year ago it looked like a decent investment. Other houses in the neighborhood are valued from $150,000 to $450,000, reports real estate agent Rudy Valdes of Seventhe Real Estate Services, who has listings in the area.
Scott Glazier, the Water Management District attorney, says he's sympathetic to the owners' plight, but he says the agency must weigh the possible options against the greater public good. "As we look at what we can do, we have to look at our operational requirements," he explains. "Unfortunately they built the house right upstream from the bridge where we have to put maintenance equipment." As for Pino and Blanco's proposal to allow demolition of the house in the event of an emergency, Glazier says, "That doesn't work for us. If we're in an emergency mode, we don't have time for that.