Preservationists Cry Foul as County Commission Considers Allowing Cities More Autonomy

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It's no secret Miami is experiencing another condo boom. Construction cranes once again screech and pivot over downtown. Towers that were stalled in 2009 are now complete. We are quickly running out of vacant lots to build on.

So it's little wonder that lawmakers are looking for solutions. Today, county Commissioner Sally Heyman is introducing an ordinance that would allow cities to opt out of Miami-Dade's Historical Preservation Board and assert greater control over local development.

Preservationists, however, are crying foul. They say the ordinance is a gift to developers who will steer small town councils to tear down historical buildings in favor of fancy new condo towers.

See also: Miami Beach Community Church Controversy: Developer Donated $500,000 Before Key Vote

The vast majority of Miami-Dade's 34 cities are under the jurisdiction of the county's historical preservation board. When the board was established in 1981, cities were given a year to opt out and establish their own preservation boards instead. Eight cities, including Miami, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables, did just that.

County ordinance allows cities established since 1981 one year from their founding to opt out of the Miami-Dade HPB.

But Heyman claims the county board now wields too much control over cities. She recently attended a town council meeting in Surfside where residents complained they weren't being allowed to demolish "dumps" because the county considered them historic.

"There were some serious breakdowns where you had local governments not included until after the fact," Heyman said. "All of a sudden, the county stepped in and put the brakes on things."

Heyman's ordinance would allow cities such as Surfside to immediately opt out of the county's HPB as long as they establish their own boards.

But preservationists warn that move would lead to flimsy and uneven enforcement, effectively allowing developers to have their way with some of Miami's oldest and prettiest buildings.

"Commissioner Heyman seems to be acting on the desires of a small handful of elected officials in towns such as Bay Harbor Islands," activist Daniel Ciraldo said in an email. "They do not understand the benefits of historic preservation and are making every effort to ensure that the county does not protect its unique historic assets. As an example, due to the lack of preservation in Bay Harbor, that town has recently been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as among the most endangered places in the United States."

Ciraldo said he was worried that new municipal historic preservation boards would follow "only very minimal standards."

"This is a very bad idea," he added by phone.

Heyman said that under her ordinance, the municipal boards would follow "the same criteria" as the county's HPB. "Historical preservation is absolutely critical," she added. "I love that stuff!"

And whereas Ciraldo warned that the new ordinance will only exacerbate the condo boom, raise rents, and dislodge working-class locals, Heyman said it's all about returning power to locally elected officials.

"If it's local government for everything else, then you know what? Local government should have a say when it comes to historical preservation," she said. "This is just how government should work."

Today is the first reading of the ordinance. It will be referred to a committee before being voted on, likely later this month.

Send your tips to the author, or follow him on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

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