We Built This City

A black dotted line cuts into the official planning map of Miami-Dade, separating what the county was from what it has become. Inside the line, bright colors represent a sprawl of subdivisions, shopping malls, and traffic jams. Outside the line are swaths of green, what's left of the wetlands and farms that account for South Miami-Dade's fame as an environmental and agricultural mecca.

On the northern half of the map, a jumble of yellow, orange, and brown shows development cuts deep to the west, consuming almost as much space as all the green that marks the remaining Everglades. Down in the southern half of the map, much of the green is dark olive, and it nearly dwarfs the sprawl. This is farmland, once the nation's winter bread basket, where agriculture remains one of the county's largest industries. The dotted line tracks a classic and enduring conflict of American life: the struggle between the rural and the urban, between the feeders and the eaters.

In the olive-green region, fruit orchards, vegetable crops, and plant nurseries thrive. On average there is only one house for every five acres, and few of the things that urban dwellers take for granted -- sewer lines, streetlights, and road improvements -- are widely available. Inside the line, one can find an average of ten dwellings per acre and all the conveniences and ills of modern urban living, from fast food to street crime.

The dotted lines were first put to paper in the mid-Seventies as a tool to manage growth. Planners wanted the county's population to increase in an orderly fashion within the lines, so they drew them as a mechanism they hoped would serve two seemingly irreconcilable goals. They wanted to preserve agriculture and wetlands, whose importance for the economy, drinking water protection, and flood control became more apparent with each passing day. At the same time, though, the lines could be moved, nibbling away at the green in small bites to accommodate population growth.

For a good while it worked. The lines moved frequently until the late Eighties. There was plenty of land for affordable suburban dream homes, each with a garage and its own small patch of green, as well as ample farmland to keep agribusiness humming. By the Nineties the land supply had dwindled, state regulations grew stricter, and movement of the line became less frequent.

But pressure has been mounting to devour more of the open space. Developers look over the line and see a different kind of green, even as the agricultural and environmental land base becomes ever smaller, more isolated, and less sustainable.

For more than two decades, a tireless band of South Miami-Dade activists has fought off efforts by developers to move the line. They live in an area called the Redland, whose boundaries they locate from SW 168th Street all the way down to SW 360th Street, past Homestead and Florida City to the west -- 68 square miles all told. Many of these activists work in agriculture. Some are retired or have part-time jobs. All cherish a vanishing rural lifestyle. Despite much success, in recent years it has become apparent they don't have enough manpower to stop the typical progression whereby the colors on the map swallow all the green.

So, beginning a few years ago, these Redland activists hit upon an idea that apparently no one has ever tried. To save the farmland, they want to incorporate. If the activists get their way, they will create the largest municipality in Miami-Dade County, all of it presently outside the line.

The incorporationists are unsure whether what they create will be called a city, town, or village, but believe only by wresting control from an unaccountable county commission can they hope to halt development and nurture agriculture by assuming complete local power over planning, zoning, and code compliance. Where most municipalities dream of tall spires and great public works, the would-be founders of the municipality of the Redland long to keep their roads unpaved and services to a minimum. They want to form a city to avoid becoming one.

Whether their scheme works will largely be determined during the next six months, as the drive to make the Redland a city wends its way through the county's cumbersome and politically volatile incorporation process. The stakes in the battle are nothing less than the long-term survival of South Florida's agriculture, the future development of South Miami-Dade, and the dreams of new riches for politically connected developers.

The two sides first will fight it out before planning boards and the county commission. If the proposal clears these steep hurdles, the fate of the Redland ultimately will rest with voters in the designated area. But after years of rancor between preservationists and the forces of development, it's doubtful the debate will be confined to official forums. Disputes over the future of this land turned personal a long time ago. Just as development threatens to cross the line, so is the Redland incorporation likely to spill over into the letters pages of local newspapers and the parking lots of public hearings. And if the past is any indicator, the police may need to be brought in as well.

"It will be a titanic struggle," observes former County Manager Merrett Stierheim.

If the residents of the Redland are to incorporate and take control of their own destiny, they must follow a precise road map that leads through the county commission, various advisory boards and study groups, and a public referendum. Perils await at every juncture.

The incorporation process, devised after much trial and error in 1999 by Stierheim and the commissioners, allows ample opportunity for the commission to bring everything to a screeching halt.

First comes a study by a municipal advisory committee of area residents, usually named by the commissioner of the district and approved by the entire county commission. In the case of the Redland, Commissioner Katy Sorenson stacked the Redland Area Municipal Advisory Committee (RAMAC) with local activists. The advisory committee and county staff hold public meetings, and then their commissioner decides whether to sponsor an ordinance putting incorporation into the pipeline. If a majority of the commissioners concur, the real work begins.

The county instructs a standing boundaries commission to scrutinize the proposed borders of the new city, with help from county staff. It is before such a panel that the shape and size of the Redland will be debated. After the boundaries commission, the proposal goes before a planning advisory board, which analyzes it for the new city and figures out how it will affect what remains of unincorporated Miami-Dade. County staff, using their own data and input from the boards, then fashion a conceptual agreement between the county and the new municipality. The agreement, along with reports by the two boards, the municipal advisory committee, and staff, is forwarded to the county commission. In a public hearing, commissioners listen to the pros and cons of the incorporation before taking a vote on whether to accept the agreement and the new municipality.

But even then it's far from over, even if commissioners green-light the proposal. The plan next goes to registered voters in the proposed boundaries. Upon approval by residents, a charter committee is appointed by the commission to decide what form of government the new municipality will have. The charter also will detail a schedule for elections. Public meetings are held to receive input from the citizenry to help fashion this governmental blueprint. When the committee completes the charter, the county commission once again gets to vote, though only to approve or reject the charter. If commissioners accept the charter, it too goes before residents for a vote. Once the new city has a charter, another round of local elections for leaders is all that remains to create a fully functional new city.

The commission approved the formation of RAMAC in May 2000. After two public hearings and months of biweekly RAMAC meetings, the commission approved the official onset of the process in February 2001. The proposal is scheduled to go before the boundaries commission in late May.

For the Redland each step in this labyrinth is proving to be hotly contested.

As the people who want to safeguard their rural lifestyles press to make the Redland a city, forces are marshaling to quash their rebellious efforts.

A complicating factor is that much of the area's farmland is not owned by the farmers who work on it. Instead the land is controlled by nonresidents, many of whom hope to cash in when the area is developed. In the meantime county agriculture tax rebates encourage the absentee owners to lease the land cheaply to farmers. These absentee landlords have money they can use to pay lobbyists to influence commissioners, should they choose. Many farmers who tend large vegetable row crops and groves also have been critical of the incorporation drive. They argue that the free market should hold sway, agriculture cannot be saved, and farmers have an inalienable right to profit from development of their land. A proponent of this perspective has been the Dade County Farm Bureau (see "The Final Harvest," May 14, 1998). (The farm bureau has not taken an official position on Redland incorporation.)

But at the moment the most serious threat to the incorporation proposal comes from the area's unhappy neighbors in a dispute that likely will heat up when the boundary commission meets to review the lines around the hypothetical city of the Redland.

Sound public policy dictates that the boundary commission not draw lines that create an enclave of unincorporated land sandwiched between two cities. The county would still be responsible for providing services to such an enclave, a prospect that is both expensive and difficult.

But the boundaries Redland activists envision could do just that. A sliver of county land no more than six miles long would be isolated between the Redland and Homestead, bordered on the north by SW 288th Street, on the west by SW 197 Avenue, and sharing its south and eastern edges with Homestead. The land currently is inside the development line on the county master plan, and it could become the poison pill that kills the Redland incorporation.

Many residents of this area discovered with horror at a recent public meeting on Redland incorporation that while they live surrounded by farmland, in recent years their community was zoned for high-density residential. Wary of politics Homestead-style, many residents have decided that should the Redland become its own city, they'd like to belong to it.

But incorporation activists don't want these neighbors included in a new Redland. The enclave, they say, will soon have a population of 30,000, far more than the 17,000 people who live in the 68 square miles that make up their proposed city. Trying to form a city government with these suburban dwellers could easily sink the Redland's dreams of remaining development-free.

"What is the possibility that they will be good stewards of agriculture?" asks Geoffrey Knights, a RAMAC member. "You have set up this conflict and contradiction, which is what we have tried to avoid."

There are problems with other neighbors as well. Officials from Florida City and Homestead have sent letters to county planners objecting to the proposed boundaries for the Redland, because both of those cities would like to expand into the territory the incorporationists are claiming. The activists point out that the land in question already is outside the line and designated for agriculture, not development. They also fear that if the land mass shrinks too much, important economies of scale required by agriculture could be harmed.

Redland incorporationists also will have a tough sell convincing commissioners to support their cause. Many of the commissioners are terrified that forming a city in the Redland could contribute to a tidal wave of communities demanding to become municipalities. Other commissioners appear to be easily influenced by development interests that oppose incorporation. Such behavior was apparent when the commission met this past February 13 to decide whether it was time for the proposal to advance to the planning boards.

In the audience that day were some members of RAMAC who expected the commission would easily approve this next step. RAMAC members maintain a good relationship with the commission in general and South Miami-Dade commissioners Katy Sorenson and Dennis Moss in particular. When Moss was unable to cosponsor the resolution with Sorenson, Commissioner Pedro Reboredo stepped in.

Much to everyone's surprise, it quickly became clear that the District 6 commissioner was largely ignorant of the contents of the resolution he had signed on to support. Still, lack of preparation didn't hinder Reboredo from trying to sabotage the onset of the incorporation process.

"I have a couple of questions," began the 57-year-old commissioner, who happened to be under the scrutiny of a state criminal grand jury at the time. (See "The Reboredo Files," March 29, 2001. Reboredo has subsequently resigned his commission seat and pleaded no contest to a one count misdemeanor.) "What has been presented to us? What has been analyzed? What does this resolution represent?"

Reboredo related that he had received phone calls and letters from people in the Redland, an area he does not represent. The commissioner failed to mention that among those who contacted him was prominent Homestead banker and Redland resident Bill Losner, a regular contributor to political campaigns. Sorenson had appointed Losner to RAMAC, which he quit in disgust after opposing many of the plans of his fellow members.

In a letter he sent to all commissioners, Losner, who did not attend the February 13 meeting, asked them to vote against the measure. The Redland activists had proposed a budget of limited services that might not be acceptable, he charged. "We simply do not know if that “bare-bones' approach will meet the needs of the citizens," Losner wrote.

County staff tried to explain to Reboredo that the planning advisory board and the commissioners themselves would eventually have plenty of opportunity to review the proposed budget.

Reboredo then asked if land owners had been consulted and if their approval was needed. A county staffer at the podium tried to give a discrete primer to Reboredo on some basic American democratic principles. "Sir, in federal law, voting rights are for residents and citizens, not for property owners," budget coordinator Alex Rey Panama explained.

Commissioner Sorenson had heard enough. She had sponsored the advisory council as well as this resolution. "The overwhelming number of people really approve of the Redland incorporating," Sorenson said. "I know there are a few people who don't, but at some point they will have the opportunity to vote."

Sorenson, who often has opposed incorporation for other communities, including some in her own district, explained why she approved of the Redland proposal. As multiple communities have tried to break away from county government, the commissioner's greatest fear has been that when richer communities secede, they will leave poorer areas behind. In the end all that will remain are checkerboards of impoverished enclaves with some of the highest taxes in Miami-Dade.

Sorenson did not anticipate this problem with the Redland because county officials believe it to be revenue neutral. The taxes the area pays are commensurate with the cost of the services it receives. Thus if the Redland becomes a municipality, it wouldn't drain the county treasury. With further assurances to Reboredo that the commission would not vote on the actual incorporation until September, the motion passed.

A few weeks before the February commission vote, residents of the Redland came together on a Monday evening at Redland Middle School for a public meeting on incorporation. About 450 people filled the small auditorium. Denim dominated as the clothing of choice.

In recent years a new breed of settlers have come to the Redland. Like the ones who preceded them, they mostly are opinionated iconoclasts who seek a rural lifestyle where they won't be bothered. But, often embarking on a second career or an early retirement, they have changed the farming dynamic. Even as increased foreign competition makes it harder for larger vegetable and fruit farmers to continue, these smaller agriculturists have met with success establishing nurseries and orchards. Noble Hendrix, a former thoracic surgeon who grows lychee, stood at the back of the auditorium that day. Martin Motes, an English professor-turned-international-orchid seller, was there as well. It's likely that without this demographic change, Redland incorporation would not be possible. The new influx has not only resuscitated agriculture, it has made it more of a lifestyle choice than ever before.

By way of introduction Pat Wade, chairwoman of RAMAC, filled the audience in on the background of the effort. Wade, a retired associate professor of medicine, grows and sells wholesale ornamental foliage. She detailed the results of a survey the group conducted that showed overwhelming support for incorporation (though only 460 people responded). Wade then tried to explain how the police force and other services would work. "If it seems a little squishy," she concluded, "it's because it is a little squishy." The chairwoman then handed the microphone to Geoffrey Knights to break down the budget. "It always falls to me to flesh out the details," Knights quipped.

Indeed the 50-year-old economist has done much of the number crunching and analytical work on the incorporation proposal. A native of the Midwest, Knights has studied under five Nobel Prize laureates in economics. "It's not something I did," he insists. "It was just luck." Knights came to Miami-Dade 25 years ago and did strategic planning and systems work for Burger King Corporation and the United Way before setting himself up as a freelance consultant. After Hurricane Andrew, Knights and his wife, who works for the World Wildlife Fund, decided to move with their young daughter to the Redland. "We thought they had good values," he notes a few weeks after the February meeting.

Knights had settled into a quiet rural life until, at his wife's urging, he joined the Redland Citizens Association (RCA). The organization has been a powerhouse in South Miami-Dade for decades, fighting zoning battles to protect agriculture. "The RCA is not a homeowners association; it's a civic organization, and I liked that," recalls Knights. "It was really fun. There was a lot of give and take."

Within a year of joining, the economist with an interest in land use and zoning became a board member. Last year he was elected president. While the RCA refuses to take an official position on Redland incorporation, most of those pushing the new municipality are members of the organization.

Knights outlined a rough budget, and some members of the audience expressed concern about the small surplus of about $50,000. He explained that if residents expected perks, the incorporation was probably not going to work. Ultimately he made the point that government, local or otherwise, was only as good as its officials. Incorporation did not guarantee good zoning, only more accountability.

Skeptics in the audience were joined by a handful of people who appeared outright hostile. David Kaplan, newly elected president of the Dade County Farm Bureau, took to the podium to lash out at the premise that incorporation would save agriculture. Kaplan, who sold his 100-acre tree farm and now owns a five-acre nursery, questioned the farming credentials of most of the audience.

"We are going to have a lot of beautiful houses and a lot of hobby farms, but not a lot of agriculture," Kaplan maintained. "God bless Mrs. Wade, but my guess is most of her income doesn't come from agriculture."

Wade and Knights made the case that a municipality would give farmers legal standing to promote agriculture and apply for grants. A few days later as proof that such support exists, the activists produced a copy of a letter then-Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver wrote to the RCA. Shiver hoped to convince the group to allow Homestead to annex the Redland. He requested the chance to present a proposal to make the Redland a "special" district that could be eligible for tax rebates and grants. His overtures were rejected.

Shiver, now wearing his county manager hat, denies he has formulated a position on Redland incorporation. "I look forward to working with those folks," he insists.

In addition to County Manager Shiver, one powerful private citizen who will probably play an important role in Redland incorporation is banker Bill Losner.

Bill Losner sits deskbound in his office at the headquarters of the First National Bank of Homestead, where he has been chairman of the board for twelve years. At almost 63 years old, Losner still has the chubby face and demeanor of an overgrown kid. A major force in the community since the Sixties, evidence of Losner's irrepressible energy can be seen on his résumé, where he lists his participation in 44 charitable and civic causes, ranging from president of the Rotary Club to membership on the Agricultural Museum Board of Trustees. He has even held public office, winning one term as a community councilman.

Losner's influence, interest, and financial resources make him an important player in the Redland incorporation debate, and he has taken an active role in the issue almost from the beginning. His critics charge that active means "actively opposed." He denies this. Until recently Losner sat on the Redland Area Municipal Advisory Committee (RAMAC), where he consistently voted alone against the majority in meetings that often resembled an unruly kindergarten class. Losner's feud with the Redland activists has the kind of intensity only bad blood in a small town can produce.

"It really is oil and water," observes Kay Bismarck, a local realtor.

Many date the discord to 1987, when, following a flurry of letters from lawyers, Losner was the first and only member of the Redland Citizens Association to be expelled from the group. "Why would you want to join an organization when you don't agree with what it does?" wonders current RCA president Geoffrey Knights.

Losner contends he is not the rapacious, development-hungry businessman he's often portrayed as. "I hope in my lifetime that you never are going to see more than one house on five acres [in the Redland]," he says. Then his voice takes on a slightly higher-pitched tone as he imitates his critics. "But I am the banker. The banker wants development. He wants to put concrete all over the Redland." His voice drops an octave. "And that is the furthest thing from the truth."

Yet Losner's views on how to safeguard agriculture and who is responsible for its disappearance are quite different from those of the RCA. He believes that if the county wants to preserve farmland, it should float a bond issue and buy land in the Everglades. He also blames the two national parks in South Miami-Dade for much of agriculture's demise.

Bismarck, who is a past president of the RCA, doesn't see much support for Losner in the community. "Losner is more pro-development than anyone I can point to," she says. "There aren't really a whole lot of people alongside [him]." She thinks the dispute between the banker and the activists is "silly."

Zoning activist Karen Esty doesn't see it in quite so benign terms. She accuses Losner of stalking, contending that he frequently drove by her house and, on at least one occasion, parked across the street and sat watching. Losner defends himself by saying he feared Esty was violating Florida's Sunshine Law by talking about zoning applications with her friend, community councilman Charlie McGarey. The banker's attention ceased after Esty confronted him at a public meeting. "I've never had a problem with the man since," she says.

When Commissioner Katy Sorenson appointed Losner to the committee looking into incorporation, trouble was bound to ensue. Losner repeatedly accused the board of trying to exclude people. He demanded the names of those who had answered an early confidential incorporation survey by the activists and threatened to sue when Pat Wade refused to provide them. "They sent it to their chosen few," he contends. "If they had said, “Fine, we will give it to you,' it would have been fine. But they didn't want to give it to me, so I pressed it."

According to Wade, her husband, John, thinks Losner verbally abuses her in public forums, a problem that began last year when she and Losner ran against each other for a seat on the local community council. (Wade beat incumbent Losner.) She counsels her husband to ignore the goads of the banker, but Wade, a retired Florida Power & Light contracts negotiator, isn't very successful at turning the other cheek. After one incorporation meeting, Wade angrily called Losner "white trash" for not putting away the folding chairs.

Such is the nature of Losner's relationship with the activists that a sophomoric gesture can quickly escalate into a matter for the police. For example the banker demonstrates how the allegation arose that he exposed himself in public last December 18, in the auditorium of a middle school after the first public meeting on incorporation. Losner was arguing with activists at the time. According to a police report, it all began when John Wade declared, "You are just jealous that my wife beat you at the community council seat and she's a woman."

The banker claims the report leaves out the vile expletives Wade directed at him in addition to the taunts that Losner was beat by "a woman." Losner smiles from the comfort of his office. "I said, “I'll show you that I'm not.' [He pretends to reach for his pants zipper.] I unzipped my zipper about that far," he says, his fingers at most a few inches apart. "[Zoning activist] Karen Esty went crazy and started screaming and hollering."

Esty then found herself a policeman and filed an incident report. "I'll show you what type of man I am," Losner allegedly said.

The report's narrative continues: "Then [Losner] proceeded to unzip his pants and put his hand in his pants, just the fingertips, when Karen Esty said, “William Losner, what are you doing?' Then Losner quickly zipped his pants up."

After months of contentious meetings, Losner abruptly quit RAMAC this past March. Although his involvement in incorporation has slowed for the moment, his ex-committee members doubt they've heard the last of him. He has said in the past that if incorporation succeeds, he plans to run for mayor of the new municipality. Now he claims he won't. "I told them I was going to run for mayor, but I don't need the headaches," he asserts. "I think my family would probably kill me."

While Knights welcomes the debate Losner brings, he worries about the banker's impact. "He has no regard for what we are trying to do," Knights concludes. "I don't think people will want to incorporate if they are incorporating a permanent feud."

Knights rules out running for office himself, preferring to prod from the sidelines. He says activists are ready to disavow their unique experiment if, in its creation, the boundaries or other key parts of the proposal are changed too much. "If this thing gets bastardized, we would probably be the first to sink it," he maintains.

Meanwhile he busily works to formulate a preliminary charter to offer voters for approval. He has studied about 40 municipalities to get ideas, he says. His criteria is to determine what matches with the mission to save agriculture. Some of the ideas being tossed around are a weak-mayor system of government, residency requirements, unpaid elected leaders, and a professional manager.

Even if this revolutionary rural community fails to materialize, activists welcome the serious debate on the future of Miami-Dade's farmland that will result. "If the commission and these hidden forces don't want agriculture, let them come out and say it," comments Pat Wade.

Each of them professes to be slightly in awe of watching what could be a historic process unfold. "It's a chance in a lifetime," says Knights. "It's going to be hilarious to watch."


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