Miami Beach Community Church Controversy: Preservationists Win Battle Over Secret Donation

Divine intervention it is not, but a last minute decision by a city official has thrown a Miami Beach mega development project into sudden disarray.

Earlier today, Miami Beach's special master ruled that the city's Historical Preservation Board had erred in approving a controversial plan to turn a historic church courtyard into a clothing store.

The decision hinged on an August 11 New Times article revealing a $500,000 "donation" from developers to the congregation.

See also: Miami Beach Community Church Controversy: City Approves Plan to Destroy Courtyard, Build Clothing Store

The controversy dates back to December, when New Times first broke news that the Miami Beach Community Church was considering leasing its century-old courtyard to developer TriStar Capital for a whopping $100 million.

Church leaders called the deal "a miracle from god" and claimed they needed the money to save the ailing institution.

Some congregation members were outraged, however.

"It's typical Miami Beach politics," said one, speaking to New Times on the condition of anonymity. "They've given us no information, no plan, no nothing... It's all very, very hinky."

That hunch turned out to have some truth to it, as New Times later revealed that developers had given a $500,000 donation to the church the day before its members approved the development deal.

The day after our article on the donation, the city's Historical Preservation Board nonetheless approved the project.

Preservationists' last hope -- aside from a court battle -- was an appeal to a quasi-judicial city official called the special master.

In a decision signed earlier today, Miami Beach special master Warren Bittner ruled that the Historical Preservation Board made a "fundamental error" by not considering the $500,000 donation during its Aug. 12 hearing.

Bittner's ruling means that the HPB will now decide whether that donation was properly disclosed during the approval process.

Daniel Ciraldo of the Miami Design Preservation League, the group opposing the courtyard development plan, says he's optimistic the HPB will revoke its earlier decision.

"The way the code is written, if the applicant did not disclose a donation in a timely manner (before the hearing or at it), then the approval should be null and void," he says. "The HPB, if following the law, would likely be compelled to null and void it."

"So the odds are likely that it would be voided and the project stopped," he says, adding "if the rules are followed."

If the HPB does rescind its approval, the project will be thrown out and cannot be resubmitted for at least a year.

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