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The Great Barrier Beef

It's the barricade from hell: a berm of earth stretching across NE Seventh Avenue at 80th Street, framed by freshly poured concrete curbs and landscaped with languishing bougainvillea and miniature palms. Who could have imagined that this innocuous street closure would ignite an ugly war in Miami's Upper Eastside neighborhood of Shorecrest?

Now, after more than four years of personal attacks, bureaucratic backtracking, political arm-twisting, and hundreds of hours spent by city and county officials in fruitless pursuit of peace, the fighting may soon spread to the courthouse -- which may be the only place to make any sense out of what has become an intractable mess.

The barricade is one of eleven scattered throughout Shorecrest, a tree-shaded urban enclave bounded on the south by busy 79th Street, on the north by 87th Street, and running from Biscayne Boulevard to the bay. The disputed barricade blocks traffic from proceeding north on NE Seventh Avenue above 79th Street; it also prevents direct access to the back parking lot of a strip of businesses along the north side of 79th Street. Reaching that lot now requires a circuitous route that begins several blocks away. Because of this inconvenience, the owners of the Little River Club -- a nonprofit organization that owns the commercial strip and hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in its clubhouse there -- have been protesting ever since barriers were first placed in Shorecrest in 1994.

Until the end of last year, the Seventh Avenue barricade was a movable orange-and-black metal traffic barrier. Several times its location changed slightly: back and forth from the south side of the intersection with 80th Street to the north side of the intersection. City and county officials, under intense lobbying from one faction or another, kept changing their minds about where it should be placed. As long as it was on the north edge of the intersection, drivers could reach the Little River Club's parking lot directly from Seventh Avenue. But on the weekend after the 1998 New Year's holiday, club members say, they arrived to find concrete poured and landscaping under way across Seventh Avenue -- on the south side of 80th Street.

"We didn't know it was going to be permanent," says Bob H., secretary-treasurer of Little River Club. (Because club members belong to AA, Bob wanted only his first name used, as is AA custom.) "We had an agreement that [no construction] would be done until we could work something out with the Shorecrest Homeowners Association, which we are members of. I go to all their meetings. We want to be good neighbors. All we ask is access to our parking lot."

Attorney Gary Glasser, representing the club, had been meeting with homeowners association officers and city and county officials in an effort to get the barricade either removed completely or at least permanently located on the north side of 80th Street. Glasser, in fact, has a memo signed by Miami's chief civil engineer Leonard Helmers and then-chief of Dade's public works highway division James Leone, agreeing after a meeting in August 1997 to a "temporary moratorium" on construction of a permanent barricade at the intersection.

But the homeowners weren't about to compromise. If the barricade were to be located on the north side of the intersection, several blocks of 80th Street would remain accessible and so would defeat their efforts to build a protective "perimeter" around the residential area. "I really don't understand what all the stink is about," says Jorge Zuloaga, vice president of the homeowners association. "They can just as easily enter a block away. But if we move that barricade, it'll open up everything."

The homeowners' position is bolstered by two developments since the advent of temporary barricades in 1994: All categories of crime in Shorecrest have decreased significantly from 1993 to 1997, according to Miami Police Department statistics; and some realtors and homeowners in the area say residential property values are way up.

During the summer of 1997, the homeowners association began to pull construction permits to convert each of the eleven barricades to permanent street closures. A final permit to construct the Seventh Avenue-80th Street barricade was pending. Miami public works director Jim Kay says Dade's Jim Leone -- without mentioning anything about a moratorium -- told him in early December to issue the permit, so he did. (The county's public works department has final say on all elements of street-closure plans).

That's when things got even messier. Little River Club attorney Glasser became suspicious that most of the work on the barricade had been done on Friday, January 2, during the New Year's holiday. Despite instructions on the permit for the contractor to call city public works to send an inspector to the site during construction, that wasn't done, according to Miami assistant public works director John Jackson.

Glasser then discovered that the construction company listed on the permit was neither registered with the Florida Secretary of State's Office nor licensed by the state or county. After he brought this to Jim Kay's attention, Kay ordered the homeowners association to remove the barricade within 48 hours. But the city backed off when association president Heikki Talvitie explained that the name of the company had simply been abbreviated on the permit and showed that the general contractor on the job was properly licensed. Unsatisfied and suspicious, Glasser asked the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses contractors, to investigate. In any case, the barricade isn't currently up to city code, according to Kay. The homeowners have until June to improve it.

"The bottom line," contends Talvitie, "is that these barricades have been approved by the residents of Shorecrest [78 percent voted for them in a mandatory election], by the city, and by the county. [Glasser] is running out of things to complain about."

But the attorney counters that approval wasn't as wholehearted as Talvitie makes it seem, and he has recommended several legal options to his client, among them a court injunction to remove the barricade on the grounds that the closure constitutes a "taking" of commercial property by discouraging members to come to the club, thus depriving a business of its livelihood.

In addition there is the issue of how the Shorecrest barricades came to be erected in the first place. The heads of Miami's police and fire departments, as well as county public works officials, recommended against the street closures because of anticipated traffic jams and hindrances to emergency vehicles. But the Miami City Commission approved the homeowners' plan anyway -- a result of tireless lobbying of the commissioners by barricade proponents.

The resolution approving barricades, however, included one change in the homeowners' proposal: It placed the barricade at Seventh Avenue and 80th Street on the north side of 80th instead of the south. Several months later, after attacking barricade opponents in flyers and newsletters, and after relentlessly pestering then-City Manager Cesar Odio and various politicians, the Shorecrest Homeowners Association prevailed. The barricade was moved to the south.

Glasser sees it all as a case of politicians and bureaucrats succumbing to pressure from one organization to act against the overall public interest: "My question is, Why is the city bending over backward so much to serve the interests of one group that doesn't even represent all the homeowners? I'm telling you, it's all political.


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