Quid Pro Whoa
History doesn't mean much in Miami. Barely 100 years old, the city has allowed the bulldozing of decades-old buildings, re-routing of rivers, and ravaging of sacred Native American grounds.
The few who are sensitive to the past look to the city's preservation officer, Sarah Eaton, to safeguard its patrimony. But five years ago Eaton betrayed her trust, some critics charge, when she sided with Michael Carver and Steven Polakoff. The Morningside men sought to erect a bayfront wall that residents argued would dramatically alter the neighborhood's historic character. After a protracted court battle that ended in 1996, Polakoff and Carver settled on a wrought-iron fence with landscaping. The neighbors are still fuming.
Now Eaton is sleeping with the enemy. Rent free. She acknowledged to New Times last week that she is staying in the guest house of Polakoff and Carver's estate on North Bayshore Drive, Casa de las Palmas, while her recently purchased condo is remodeled. And the duo, who own Vintage Realty Group and Vintage Properties, admit they sold her Miami Beach condo in 1998 for less than the standard six percent commission. They even found her a new place at the Palm Bay Yacht Club, 780 NE 69th St.
Polakoff, Carver, and Eaton also took a five-day cruise to Bermuda in September 1998 with a group of friends. Last year they exchanged Christmas gifts that cost less than $50. They go out to dinner regularly, but they say each one pays his or her own bill. "This is just the way a friend behaves with another friend," comments Polakoff. "She doesn't do me any favors. I wouldn't even know what to ask for."
Eaton's recommendations are critical to virtually any architectural change in the city's four neighborhood historic districts: Morningside, Bayside, Spring Garden, and Buena Vista. She has worked full-time for Miami since 1985 and earns $63,426 per year. The historic specialist says it's no secret she lives with her friends Polakoff and Carver. Since the friendship began, she has recused herself from decisions involving her housemates. "I have nothing to hide," Eaton adds.
In Morningside, a highbrow neighborhood filled with media-types, lawyers, and yuppie couples, Eaton gets little respect these days. Alyce Robertson, a Morningside resident since 1984 who lives just a few blocks away, terms the living arrangement "troubling."
"For those people who questioned Eaton's behavior in 1994, this just emphasizes that there was bias," says Robertson, assistant director of the county environmental authority. "Those people who were opposed to [Polakoff and Carver] feel that perhaps they wouldn't receive fair treatment from her."
Pierce Mullally, a Morningside resident and attorney, is still angry about Eaton's 1994 recommendation. "Normally I think she does a good job, but on this incident she went soft. I think [Polakoff and Carver] were [Eaton's] friends and she was trying to get them what they wanted."
Eaton, age 49, graduated with a bachelor's degree from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1972 and later performed a variety of jobs related to historic preservation in New Jersey, Georgia, and Ohio. She started consulting for the City of Miami in September 1981 before taking a full-time position four years later.
During the past fourteen years, she has received above-average ratings from her bosses. But there are hints in Eaton's personnel file that she's not an exemplary employee. "She does not keep an open mind to new ideas if she has a preconceived aversion," wrote assistant planning director Joseph McManus in 1990. "She could accomplish more if she were not late and absent so frequently."
Polakoff and Carver, who made their fortune redeveloping South Beach buildings, bought a house at 5701 North Bayshore Dr. for $385,000 in 1993. Soon they began to restore the 5300-square-foot home, which was built in 1925.
A concrete wall at the end of a cul-de-sac adjacent to the property was in the remodeling plans. Neighbors, including Robertson, Mullally and Morningside realtor Norah Schaefer, argued the barrier violated the historic district's guidelines. And they said it would obstruct their view of the bay. Neighborhood uproar killed that plan, but the pair soon returned with the idea of a wrought-iron fence, which Eaton supported.
In 1994 the city's ten-member Historic and Environmental Preservation (HEP) board approved the barrier. The meeting was anything but tepid. Schaefer, a board member, blasted Eaton for siding with Polakoff and Carver. As a result, Schaefer was forced to resign her position; she declined to comment for this story.
Even after the approval, bad blood continued to flow. For the next two and a half years about 70 residents battled the fence before the HEP, the city commission, the circuit court, and an appellate court. Dirty looks and crank phone calls were exchanged. The neighbors eventually lost. Polakoff and Carver erected the barricade in 1997.
Polakoff and Carver say they developed the friendship with Eaton only after the appellate court's 1996 ruling. Eaton purchased her condo for $119,000 in October 1998, and began remodeling it this past February. At that time Carver offered her the guest house. She accepted. The condo work is scheduled for completion next month.
What's the problem? "Public officials who have regulatory authority need to be extra careful as to their actions," says Robertson, speaking only in her private capacity, not as a public official. "There's an apparent conflict of interest and unless [Eaton's] poverty-stricken, I don't see a need for creating that apparent conflict."
The city does not prohibit arrangements like the one between Eaton and the developers, but City Manager Don Warshaw is considering creation of new ethics guidelines that may address such situations.
But Polakoff contends there is no conflict because there is no professional relationship. "I don't need any approvals from [Eaton]. Most of my buyers don't need any approvals either," he says. And when the pair seek permits to make changes to their own four-bedroom abode, they take their petition to Lourdes Slayzic, Eaton's supervisor. Slayzic processed an application by Polakoff and Carver to permit some awnings this past April.
"There are people trained to do Sarah's job; we serve as each other's backup," Slayzic says. "It's not creating more work for anyone. It's our responsibility."
Polakoff is prepared to go to court to defend his friend's honor. "[If] New Times hints at even the slightest impropriety by Sarah, I will sue," he warns.
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.