Nowhere Left to Build
For the past couple of years developers, contractors, engineers, concrete companies, and road builders have been flooding into South Miami-Dade. The hundreds of homes they've built have sold quickly. Thousands of new residents have moved in, and their arrival has provided incentive for yet more development. It's boom time down south.
To get a sense of what's under way, draw a line on a map from Biscayne Bay westward to Krome Avenue along Eureka Drive (SW 184th Street). Everything below that line can be considered South Miami-Dade. According to the county's Planning and Zoning Department, roughly 162,000 people called the area home in 2000. By the year 2020, the county estimates the population will have jumped to 285,000, although some specific tracts are projected to grow with white-hot intensity. The neighborhoods surrounding the Homestead Air Reserve Base, for example, are expected to double in population by 2020 -- to 100,000 people.
The view from the turnpike while driving south says it all: Behold an expansive landscape of shimmering roofs over row upon row of new homes. It's as if the developers were saying, "We will build until there is nowhere else to build."
And indeed, there is nowhere else to build -- at least not in this county.
Numerous residential projects are either on the drawing boards or already under construction in South Miami-Dade, but in the past year none has been bigger or more controversial than the one known as Silver Palm, which is slated to occupy a 292-acre parcel of land running along the south side of Silver Palm Drive (SW 232nd Street) about a mile east of U.S. 1.
Residential construction giant Lennar Homes enticed Manuel Diaz, the wealthy and politically connected nurseryman, to sell this portion of his extensive agricultural holdings for an estimated $175,000 per acre, a price that only a few years ago would have been considered outrageously high. Despite the cost, Lennar stands to recoup up to five times that amount once it builds Silver Palm, which will include 1632 homes and townhouses, parks and green spaces covering 24 acres, a charter school, and nine lakes. "This is smart growth," says Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Lennar's attorney -- a former county commissioner, current aspiring county mayor, and one of the protagonists in this story of the dramatic transformation of what was, until recently, Miami's rural countryside.
Opposing the Silver Palm development is Manuel Dorta-Duque and dozens of his neighbors. Dorta-Duque came to Florida from Cuba in 1960. He looks the part of the rustic farmer -- thick shirts, mustache, sun-worn face. Like Manuel Diaz, he is a nurseryman who cultivates trees by the thousands. Also like Diaz, he's not against all development. He just doesn't want the huge Silver Palm project to be built in his front yard. (He lives on ten acres that border Silver Palm.)
Standing between the adversarial tree farmers is county Commissioner Katy Sorensen, in whose district Lennar's project is located. For a decade Sorenson has been a vigilant guardian of her South Dade constituents' rural lifestyles and an opponent of uncontrolled urban sprawl of the type people associate with Kendall. She has been a rare voice of reason on these issues, asking people to slow down and take a careful look at what this process of growth means for the county. She's the one who typically steps in when the little guy is being threatened. But she's also a pragmatist, and pragmatists understand that sometimes it makes sense to deal with the devil.
The Silver Palm deal began taking shape in late August of last year, when Lennar and Diaz de la Portilla were scheduled to make a presentation to the South Bay Community Council. The meeting was to be held at the South Dade Government Center in Cutler Ridge, and Diaz de la Portilla was looking forward to it. A seasoned veteran of land disputes, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the county's laws governing development.
With Diaz de la Portilla doing its bidding, Lennar felt confident it would win approval for the massive Silver Palm project. The county's Developmental Impact Committee had already approved it. "The proposed development will be compatible with the surrounding area and would not be contrary to the public interest," the DIC report stated. In fact the Lennar plan had passed muster on a full range of governmental concerns: environmental, public works, fire rescue, police, parks, transportation. Moreover it closely followed the county's comprehensive master plan regarding such things as density and infrastructure.
Still the project site required a zoning change from agricultural use to residential, and that necessitated a public meeting of the South Bay Community Council, one of fifteen such elected bodies countywide that hear zoning issues affecting their neighborhoods. Created in 1996, the councils were the brainchild of none other than Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, then a county commissioner and an advocate for giving residents of unincorporated Miami-Dade decision-making power over local zoning matters. The councils are more than mere symbols; they're quasi-judicial boards. Strict rules govern agendas and meetings, those who testify before the councils do so under oath, and a court reporter is always present. A council's zoning decision can be appealed to the full county commission, and from there through the state court system.
As Diaz de la Portilla envisioned them, the community councils would give ordinary citizens a fair shot at being heard. That, however, didn't necessarily mean he and his corporate client would play fair themselves. At least an hour before the August hearing was to begin, Lennar executives, consulting engineers, and other allies packed the second-floor meeting hall at the government center. Silver Palm's critics, many of whom also arrived early but not early enough, were forced to wait on the first floor while Lennar began making its case before the council.
As the minutes passed, the opponents' frustration grew. Manuel Dorta-Duque and others were grumbling that the people upstairs didn't live anywhere near Silver Palm Drive. Finally several of them managed to talk their way past the police and into the meeting room, where council members struggled to placate both sides. "If I had a magic wand, I would make this room bigger, or we would have TVs and we would have amplifiers so everyone could hear," council chairwoman Nancy McCue said. "But we don't have the magic wand, and we are trying to do the best we can."
One of the South Dade residents who pushed her way into the meeting was Kim Nottebaum, a high school math teacher whose husband Jeff is a chemist. In the early Eighties the newly married couple purchased an acre and a quarter with a small house a stone's throw from the proposed Silver Palm development site. The cost: $54,000. A few years later they added another acre and a quarter for just over $20,000. The original home succumbed to Hurricane Andrew; its replacement is a white-walled fortress with a large atrium, a jumbo fish tank, and swimming pool.
Like most residents in the area, the Nottebaums are not farmers. They work day jobs and supplement their income with a small nursery on one corner of their property. Their attachment to their quiet country lifestyle comes from the heart, not the bank. Their two children have grown up here. Their neighbors will tell you the same. "Most of the people are here because they've been here for a very long time," Kim explains in the soft yet stern voice of a teacher. "And they should be here. We've been here so long, I can't leave. I really love it. Just the thought of leaving my property makes me sick."
Nottebaum wouldn't be forced to leave no matter what might be built in the area. But when it came to protecting her way of life, she kept watch like a pitbull. During the Silver Palm meeting the council asked that the opposition wait outside until it was their turn to speak. Nottebaum and her cohorts refused. They had already organized a response to Lennar. She and her husband, as well as Dorta-Duque and several other neighbors, had gone door-to-door collecting 500 signatures to stop the developer. Their interests varied. Some, like Nottebaum, worried about the paved roads that were sure to be built with the new housing. Others, like Dorta-Duque, feared the new residents would complain about the pesticides and machinery used in farming. All of them were vexed by the prospect of many, many more people.
The meeting dragged on for hours, forcing the council to schedule a second session in September to accommodate those who wanted to speak in opposition to Silver Palm. Like the first, the subsequent meeting was standing-room only, and it inspired fireworks to rival the biggest Fourth of July show.
Dorta-Duque claimed at the meeting that Lennar representatives had threatened him and warned him to back off. He also accused his neighbor and seller of the land, Manuel Diaz, of forcing his non-English-speaking laborers to fill to capacity the previous meeting so opponents couldn't find seats. "The people that were there did not understand a word of what was being said," he charged, adding that they didn't even understand when to sit down: "As a matter of fact, the first word that even a dog knows is sit. I mean, how many of you have heard 'Dog, sit,' and he sits?"
Dorta-Duque's grievances with Manuel Diaz went back years. According to Dorta-Duque, Diaz had plowed roads where he shouldn't have and blocked them when he wasn't allowed to do so. "It's like plowing Plymouth Rock into the ocean!" he fumed. He'd complained to the county and to his neighbors, but to no effect. So he added his gripes about Diaz to his Silver Palm argument.
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla objected. Dorta-Duque objected to the objection. And once again chairwoman McCue struggled to maintain order.
"I am objecting to the fact that this application [for a zoning change] takes absolutely no consideration to anything past or present," Dorta-Duque implored. "There's simply: 'Lennar, love it or leave it; here we are, this is what we're doing.' These streets should not be closed. We should not allow pioneers that came to Dade County, that scratched their living with their hands, to all of a sudden be forgotten."
Emotional objections poured from others as well. "Just because something is in a master plan, it doesn't mean it has to go that way," said resident farmer Jorge Cuadrado, poetically adding, "I'm just afraid that if we don't think of things wisely and just think about developing and developing, you're going to have such a density that people, for lack of a better word, are going to have to fight for air."
"Developers are being greedy," another decried. "Overcrowding can and will endanger lives."
"When do we stop?" asked Susan Homyk. "Do we wait until the schools are at 300 percent capacity before we say no more building? Do we wait until we can't get down the street before we say no more?"
And finally Nottebaum: "We don't have four-lane highways with medians. We don't have traffic lights. We don't even have any streetlights. We can see the stars at night. With this development, we're going to lose the stars."
Lennar: love it or leave it; suddenly forgotten; fighting for air; losing the stars -- it was powerful stuff. Council members twisted and turned in their seats while Diaz de la Portilla and the Lennar executives became hopping mad. "I object," Diaz de la Portilla said over and over before injecting his own metaphor. "There were so many things stated by some of the objectors that are clearly inaccurate and misinformed," he declared. "If someone shows you a dog, and you're looking at a dog and it's white, and people keep insisting that it's yellow -- I don't know what else to say."
But the tide seemed to be turning. Council member Daniel Adams issued a warning: "We're talking about, in addition to the already-approved 50 developments in the area, we're going to add in another 1700 homes. I think we have a problem.... It's like shooting yourself in the foot."
Adams was the only one of the six council members who lived close to the proposed development. He was most troubled by the inevitable increase in traffic. "I don't live in Hialeah," he said. "I don't live in the Keys. I live within a mile of [the development] -- and that's why I'm glad you [Diaz de la Portilla] created the community councils, 'cause the people who live in the area vote on these issues. In my mind, I just can't see it [Silver Palm] -- just on the streets and the ability to move around."
Council member Leonard Anthony questioned Lennar's commitment. "What assurances do we have that Lennar ... is going to continue to be the developer of this property ... without the potential of them flipping it?" he asked.
Again Diaz de la Portilla scrambled to respond: "By having a beautiful project that is master planned, that isn't the hodgepodge of twenty acres here and twenty acres there, and that kind of thing that happened in Kendall and in other places, but a master-planned community, we would actually have something that would set the trend for quality development in South Dade."
But it was too late. The momentum had turned against Lennar and Diaz de la Portilla. The vote was four-to-two against Silver Palm. Opponents jumped for joy.
Not surprisingly, Lennar appealed the community council's decision to the county commission. It was a simple process. Lennar paid the $923.40 processing fee and Diaz de la Portilla filled out a form claiming the council's decision was not supported by "substantial competent evidence." It was so simple, in fact, that many residents wondered why they'd even bothered with the community council hearings. "What is democracy for?" Dorta-Duque asks. "What's the reason for having these local councils to guide us? So our wealthy neighbors from the north can buy up the property and do whatever they want with it?"
Diaz de la Portilla seemed to have answered that question back in 1996, on the day after community councils were established by the county's voters. "The community council allows direct input by regular folks, working people," he told the Miami Herald. "It's a type of access that should not be reserved to lobbyists and special interests. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool developer would not like to place a nuisance in his or her community -- maybe yours, but not his."
While acknowledging the irony of representing a "dyed-in-the-wool" developer before a community council, then trying to overturn that council's decision, Diaz de la Portilla stands by the appeal. "The community council is one level of review," he says today. "The county commission is another level. Every decision that the community council makes is not a good one."
During the county commission meeting this past December, Diaz de la Portilla returned to the proposal, parts of which Lennar had modified to satisfy disgruntled neighbors. For instance the company added a seventh park and an elevated berm to buffer the Silver Palm community from farmers like Dorta-Duque. Diaz de la Portilla also drew from the county's master plan and quoted from an Urban Environment League manifesto to bolster his case. He dazzled commissioners with phrases like "ahead of schedule" and "pays its own way," the latter a reference to the three million dollars or more the county would reap in new tax revenues.
In addition to Diaz de la Portilla, Lennar had lined up a range of supporters. They were retired professors, real estate developers, housewives -- African American, Latino, Asian. They praised the company for other developments in the area and for its commitment to Florida. They struck all the right chords, and the commission seemed impressed.
At noon Manuel Dorta-Duque's lawyer, Kent Harrison Robbins, approached the podium. "It looks like the whole area is going to be concrete, and that's our trend and this is one more step in that area of concrete," he argued. "We don't need it. This county doesn't need it. The people don't need it."
A swarm of Lennar opponents followed. Many of them read the same script they'd prepared for the community council meeting. Their pleas lasted for hours but the commissioners were unswayed. They asked few questions, and seemed to know where they were headed. In recent years the county commission and community councils alike have laid the groundwork for exactly this type of project by steadily shifting from agricultural zoning to commercial, residential, and mixed-use. While all the commissioners understood the issue at hand, and its emotional component, only Jimmy Morales said it aloud: "Sounds like today we're basically sounding the death knell for agriculture inside the Urban Development Boundary line." (Outside that line, along the western edge of the county, development is restricted to one residence per five acres.)
Around this time at the meeting, Katy Sorensen took a deep breath. Despite nearly a decade on the commission, she still looked innocent enough to be the lead in a high school play. Her appearance, though, belied the toughness she'd acquired during years of wrangling over growth issues -- almost always in opposition to sprawling new residential developments. But with Silver Palm, Sorensen had to face a new reality: Her commission district is in transition.
Research shows that Miami-Dade agriculture is under intense pressure. A recent University of Florida report (the Miami-Dade County Agricultural Land Retention Study) identified several complex problems: Cheap foreign imports have undercut the competitiveness of local farmers; the independence and diversity of farmers and growers has created a fragmented industry without cohesion or clout; and the influx of new residents continues unabated. "Population growth and concomitant urban development appear inevitable for Miami-Dade County," the UF researchers noted. "As the supply of developable land dwindles, prices will undoubtedly increase. These price increases ... will motivate landowners to convert agricultural land to higher-valued uses."
The UF study is borne out by the transaction between grower Manuel Diaz and Lennar. Last August, in a letter to the South Bay Community Council, Diaz offered this analysis: "I fiercely and successfully opposed development in our area for decades. I finally realized that population growth is inevitable. I could win battles, but in the end I lost the war."
Now the war had been brought to Sorenson. But Lennar's project proved to be an elusive enemy, and difficult to attack. It was sound. It fit with her staff's recommendations for the area: parks, green space, a school, walkability. "South Dade is the last frontier in Miami-Dade County for development," Sorenson began. "It's going to be developed. We can either do it well or we can do it in a haphazard way. While I have a lot of sympathy for people who live there and who are used to the rural lifestyle, it's just simply not going to continue forever. So for me, the best thing to do is to develop responsibly, develop it well, with an adequate infrastructure and facilities that we need. I think this project is really an excellent project. It has all the things we have been looking for as a commission."
She steadied herself and continued: "You have heard me many times not allow development or object to development in South Miami-Dade. But to me, this is the area that is next. Luckily we have some responsible developers and their representatives who are willing to make it a good part of the community.... To me, this is an example of good, well-thought-out development, so I move to approve the application."
The vote: eleven-to-one in favor of overturning the community council's decision and approving Silver Palm.
The lone dissenter was Jimmy Morales. The Harvard-educated commissioner, who is also running for county mayor, thought the Lennar proposal was excellent, but he worries that development is moving too fast, that infrastructure won't be able to keep pace with the rate of growth. "It's a nice project, but that doesn't mean it was the right thing at the right time," he says today. "There's a difference between pushing it along now and waiting until it made sense to do it."
Sorensen shares some of Morales's concerns about infrastructure, but she remains firm. "We wanted to have kind of the big-picture perspective," she says. "Not Kendall, not urban sprawl. We wanted thoughtful urban design, communities that would retain their value. We can't put up a stop sign and say nobody can come anymore. We don't have those kinds of laws."
Reaction among the neighbors living near the proposed development has been mixed. Kim Nottebaum and her husband seem resigned to the inescapable urban surge. "Let's face it," she says. "The county wants development. The more houses they sell, the more taxes they can collect. Why wouldn't they? They're not making any money off these farms.... If Lennar is going ahead to build a development, it might be okay. Chances are if we push them and win, a worse [developer] may come along. I hate to say we're beaten, but we're probably beaten on this one."
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