The Oat Wars

The morning light draws glistening stripes along the metal gates that open into Manolo Garcia's South Dade stable and feed store. The aroma of grain and seed sweetens the air as a laborer emerges from the door of a storage building wheeling a dolly laden with two 50-pound bags of feed toward a worn pickup. The two ranch hands leaning against the truck wave when another man pulls up in a van, their familiarity and comfortable demeanor suggesting that they're regulars at the business Garcia has operated since 1982 at his family's ten-acre ranch on 51st Street just east of busy SW 127th Avenue.

If you were to chance upon the tranquil scene, you'd probably never guess that Garcia is breaking the law. According to county regulations, residents of horse country -- the region of unincorporated Dade bounded on the north and south by Bird Road and Sunset Drive and on the east and west by SW 127th Avenue and the turnpike -- can sell only goods raised or reared on their own property.

"You can have a grove and sell fruits you pack from the grove, but you can't have a packinghouse and sell fruits for somebody else," explains Ron Szep, an assistant manager in the county's Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation. Szep says he'll send out an inspector this week, and if Garcia is doing business, he'll get a ticket.

Though Garcia was explicitly told in August that he is prohibited from selling feed on any part of his acreage, he has refused to stop. "I'm not doing nothing against the horses," says the rancher, sitting at a desk in a windowless corner office decorated with blue ribbons and trophies from past horse show triumphs. "I worked as a waiter for 22 years. I quit in 1982 to come into my business. I can't go and make a change after fifteen years."

Garcia's regulatory troubles began in 1994, when a neighbor complained to code enforcement officials about the semi trucks that noisily delivered feed to his store. Inspectors ticketed him and advised him that he either had to get a zoning variance or apply to have the code changed to allow for commercial enterprises like his. Well aware that other horse country residents also violated the letter of the law -- some nurseries, for example, sell plants cultivated elsewhere -- Garcia hired a lawyer and asked the county to rezone his property to permit him to operate the feed store.

The endeavor soon attracted the scrutiny of the Bird-Kendall Homeowners Association, whose members are dedicated to the mission of preserving horse country's rural lifestyle. Though the area is not far from downtown Miami, its agricultural zoning designation allows residents to raise and ride horses, breed chickens, and plant crops. To association members, Garcia's bid represented a kind of domino theory: Open the pastoral landscape to a feed store, they feared, and the whole region would be lost to commerce. (The zoning for which Garcia was applying would also allow structures like shopping centers and car lots.)

"It was never the feed store, or him personally," says Bird-Kendall past president Linda Varner. "We would be against anything that would change our zoning."

Adds Roy Varner, her husband: "Our fight is not with Manolo Garcia; our fight is with the county."

The Varners and their fellow association members strode into a Metro-Dade Commission public hearing in December 1994, expecting to prevail. They had hired Jeffrey Bass, of Shubin & Bass, a Miami firm accustomed to winning such disputes. Bass argued that rezoning a quarter-acre of Garcia's land for a new shop constituted illegal "spot zoning"; Garcia's attorney countered that selling feed was perfectly compatible with all the other agricultural activities in horse country. The commission voted 6-4 in Garcia's favor. The association then took the matter to circuit court.

Buoyed by the decision, Garcia constructed a new shop fronting SW 127th Avenue, despite the fact that county officials warned him he was building at his own risk while the appeal was pending. That store has never opened for business.

Though the circuit court found for the county in the summer of 1996, the homeowners persevered, and this past June they triumphed. In their decision, judges for the Third District Court of Appeal wrote that the commission's decision to rezone "embodie[d], to the nth degree, all the evils of spot zoning, specific-use-oriented zoning, and power-imposed zoning, which have been universally proscribed." Earlier this month the Florida Supreme Court declined to consider the case; there will be no further judicial review.

The county's loss was a rousing success for a group that got its start in the late Seventies by winning a campaign to stop construction of a strip mall on the edge of horse country. Those early years had been heady ones, marked by similar victories. In 1985 Bird-Kendall joined with the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations to back a slate of environmentally friendly candidates for the county commission, officials who subsequently voted to retain the region's precious agricultural zoning status in Dade County's master plan, which guides development through the millennium.

South Florida's political landscape has changed, however, and the association has found itself fighting most of its battles in the courts. And although the short, portly Garcia might hardly have seemed a powerful adversary, association members began to see him as a symbol of everything they feared, especially after the county sided with him at the outset. As the matter dragged on, conspiracy theories abounded, purporting to explain the rancher's apparent political clout: Ten years ago he boarded a horse for Latin Builders Association bigwig Sergio Pino; ergo he must be a stand-in for the LBA. (During the Eighties Garcia's neighbor, developer Felix Lima, an LBA member and former honcho, failed three times to have land just south of the feed store rezoned for a strip mall; some residents saw Lima behind Garcia's quest for commercial zoning.)

Another strange coincidence, uncovered by Jeffrey Bass: After a three-judge panel of the circuit court initially overturned the zoning change in February 1996, Garcia was granted a rehearing. The second time around, two of the three judges denied the rezoning but the court approved it anyway, in an unsigned order, compelling the homeowners to take their case to the appellate court. (Court spokesman Mort Lucoff confirms the oddity; he says the three judges later met and two changed their votes, thereby affirming the rezoning.)

A series of mysteries involving the Varners fueled yet more conspiracy chatter, all linked to Garcia in the horse country rumor mill: On two separate occasions, a person or persons unknown mutilated Linda Varner's favorite stallion, slashing the animal's testicles. Varner also received sexually suggestive materials in the mail with cards bearing hate messages.

Garcia says he had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged crimes. He does, however, freely admit that he alerted county officials to zoning violations on the Varners' property. (They're still trying to get their barn approved by county regulators so they won't have to endure a lengthy permitting process.) "If you have a glass roof, why do you want to report your neighbors?" Garcia asks. "Who did the first thing, reporting the store?"

He has a couple of conspiracy theories of his own, Garcia adds: One of his main competitors, Sunset Feed and Supply, which operates a store just outside horse country on SW 117th Avenue, donated $1000 to the Bird-Kendall Homeowners Association in January 1995, and Garcia insists that the association is acting on behalf of his rival. (Sunset's owner Tucker Townsend admits giving the association money but denies that it was to fight the feed store.) Garcia also believes he's been singled out because he's Cuban. "I don't understand why they are fighting me," says the rancher, reddening with anger. "What did I do to people?


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