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Robert Isn't Here

Ask any toll clerk on the Florida Turnpike extension for directions to Everglades National Park and they will likely include a fruit stand called Robert Is Here among the stoplights and the right turns.

The establishment at SW 192nd Avenue and Palm Drive, just west of Florida City and east of the main entrance to the park, is a South Florida institution. Tourists have spread the fame of its tropical milk shakes and fruit preserves as far as Europe and the Middle East. "It's like an old oak tree," Robert Moehling says of the landmark status achieved by the business he began as a boy 38 years ago. Despite its place of honor in the hearts of Floridians and foreigners alike, government authorities stand poised to rob Robert Is Here of its distinctive identity.

An anonymous complaint filed on February 27 tipped off county officials to alleged building code violations at Robert Is Here. The offenses concern a lack of permits for some existing structures, portable toilets, and a prominent roof sign.

Moehling's accuser refused to reveal his identity, and county policy does not require the names of complainants when their information involves "a life safety violation," according to Ricardo Roig, co-administrator for the regulation division of Dade's Department of Planning and Development. "Life safety is any structure built without a permit," says Roig, adding that the no-ask rule is meant to expedite inspections by freeing bureaucrats from waiting for complainants to fill out and return identification forms.

When Dade enforcement officer Sydney Vincent visited Robert Is Here that same day in February, he was obligated to report that in addition to the violations alleged by the tipster, the business's 1970 variance to operate in an agricultural zone didn't allow anything but the sale of fruit. A violation of the Dade County Zoning Code for "unlawfully establishing new use" now imperils the exotic milk shakes, as well as the array of seashells, honey, juices, breads, sponges, insect repellent, and cookbooks that give the market its character. "If you took away everything that isn't fruit," complains the 44-year-old Moehling, "you would strip away what Robert Is Here is."

The panoply of goods masks a humble beginning that was prompted by a farmer's thrift and a glut of cucumbers. Rather than waste the fruit, Moehling's father, Robert Sr., an Illinois transplant and chicken farmer, told his six-year-old son to sell the excess at the intersection of 192nd Avenue and Palm Drive, dirt roads at the time.

Not a single car stopped that Saturday to examine the cucumbers stacked on a plywood board supported by two crates. Robert Sr. figured the drivers hadn't seen the child merchant behind the mountain of fruit. The next day he spray-painted "Robert Is Here" on two five-by-eight-foot hurricane shutters and placed them on either side of the table. By Sunday evening the cukes had sold and Robert Jr. was hooked on the produce trade.

Throughout the first grade that year, Moehling would sell vegetables at the stand on the weekends. In the second grade he sold after school. By the third grade the stand was open all day, with customers placing their money in a tin cup while the nine-year-old sat in class. Later he hired full-time help and added his mother's preserves and honey.

The popularity of the stand engendered jealousy from a competitor across the road. The man's last act before selling his strawberry field was to call the county to complain about the sixteen-year-old's thriving fruit stand on land zoned for agriculture. As a result, young Moehling (with the help of a lawyer he and his older brother hired) applied for a variance. On December 9, 1970, the Dade County Zoning Appeals Board voted to allow the teenager to continue to sell fruit on the land despite its designation as an agricultural zone.

Fast forward to May 1997, when the new complaint brought Moehling's lawyer Perry Adair to one of several meetings with county zoning authorities. They advised Moehling to file an application to rezone the corner from agricultural to business use. In his application letter Moehling pledged to refrain from any future building on the site, which he purchased just three years ago. "They were really helpful," Adair says of the county administrators. Officials admit they operated partly out of self-interest. "We want to get this resolved so one day, on the way to Key West, I can take my kids to get a milk shake," says Ricardo Roig.

The application was filed on June 9, along with a check for more than $5000 to cover permit fees for the existing structures. The application process could take the better part of a year, according to all involved.

The requested zoning change must now be approved by Community Council 14. With 120 square miles of unincorporated Dade County to cover, the council is the largest of the fifteen zoning boards elected this past November, ostensibly to give zoning power back to local communities.

But decentralizing zoning deliberations has not necessarily increased efficiency. "The new process has really slowed things down," notes Carlos Heredia, the Dade zoning hearing processor charged with navigating Moehling's application through the county bureaucracy. One elected member of Community Council 14, who didn't want to be named, is more blunt. "Citizens of Dade County are not getting a fair shake with these community boards," he asserts. "It's taking forever to get a hearing before us."

The Robert Is Here case has yet to make it on the agenda of the council, which convenes every two months, but Dade authorities are optimistic it will be heard by November or January at the latest.

The seven members of Community Council 14 will receive recommendations about Robert Is Here from Dade's Department of Environmental Resource Management; Department of Planning, Development and Regulation; and the Department of Public Works. County officials have told Moehling's lawyer that the market's location as a business in a large agricultural area runs counter to the county's master plan and would probably dictate an opinion against a zoning change.

No matter what county officials recommend, the ultimate decision rests with the council. "In my own experience, 80 percent of the time we concur with the departments' recommendations," says Charlie McGarey, chairman of Council 14.

Moehling hopes to win over the community council by packing the hearing with Robert Is Here partisans. Rounding up local support shouldn't be hard. He is active in both church and school groups and is on a first-name basis with almost everyone in the neighboring community, including Florida City Mayor Otis T. Wallace.

Recently a representative of the federal Economic Development Agency went to the city to discuss possible projects with Wallace. The man had heard about Robert's tropical shakes from a colleague and he quickly made known his eagerness to visit the stand. "We're trying to get a million-dollar grant and he wants a milk shake," Wallace recalls with a chuckle. After their meeting, Wallace took the grant coordinator to Robert's. He bought a shake and then called his Washington office from the market to rhapsodize about the fruity concoction.

Moehling, a large man with a wraparound graying beard and a helmet of shaggy hair, is no stranger to adversity. In addition to contending with the banes of South Dade farmers -- hurricanes, floods, and freezes -- he has faced personal tragedy. Eleven days before Hurricane Andrew he found his 73-year-old mother, the matriarch and guiding light of the family, brutally murdered in her home just seven blocks from the market. The case remains unsolved.

"We've survived a lot worse than this," he says of the zoning fracas. In fact, what began as a threat to his life's work is turning into something positive, he believes. Community members have rallied around Moehling as one of their own. "All I do is sell fruit," he says, "but I've become everybody's adopted son."

Petitions in favor of Moelhing's zoning application have popped up in neighborhood establishments throughout Florida City. Everyone from local luminaries to migrant workers stop to express their support. The petition at Robert Is Here is conveniently located where customers order milk shakes. The signatures on it come from as near as Homestead and as far away as Quebec and Denmark.


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