Friday, February 8, 2013

‘This is our struggle’ – Homeowners take on County Hall, Developers

‘This is our struggle’ – Homeowners take on County Hall, Developers
story & photographs by José Pérez

The battle between homeowners and developers in the North Dade community that surrounds the old Westview Golf Course continues to escalate with litigation pending and stakeholders taking sides.  At issue is an amendment to Miami-Dade County’s Master Plan that was approved by the Board of County Commissioners in December.     For first-term County Commissioner Jean Monestime, who voted in favor of the amendment and whose district includes Westview, and developers Rosal Westview LLC, the plan makes good business sense bringing the promise of economic development to approximately 200 acres of empty and fallow golf course greens and fairways.  Longtime homeowners, however, see the initiative as a well-monied plan to bring warehouses, semi-trucks, and pollution to their front lawns.

After both an administrative challenge and a civil law suit were filed by homeowners last month, each side has hunkered down into trenches of silence with only attorneys and allies speaking about the case.   Monestime, for example, replied to a request for an interview from the South Florida Times via a message from an aide saying that the commissioner would not comment on the matter because of the pending hearings.   So, how long will the relative silence last?    The hearing for the administrative challenge to the Master Plan amendment is tentatively set for the week of April 10, 2013.  That hearing could be pushed back further because the developers have effectively jumped into the ring on the side of Miami-Dade County – after the April date was scheduled.  

The interim between now and April or whenever the State Administrative Tribunal finally hears the case does not look like it be quiet on all fronts.   The local chapter of the NAACP has taken notice of what is going on with Westview situation as part of what newly-installed President Adora Obi Nweze feels is a series of attacks on residents and homeowners in Miami-Dade on the part of developers.  “We are very concerned about the number of Black neighborhoods being affected,” Nweze says.  “We are watching the movement.”

In fact, both Nweze and attorney Greg Samms, a member of the Golf Park Homeowners’ Association, confirm that the NAACP is supporting the homeowners of the Westview area.   

Hoping to level the playing field, the homeowners have reached out to stakeholders like State Representative Cynthia Stafford.    “As a resident, I would be very concerned if a warehouse was going to be built near my home,” says Stafford who spoke about the serious problems that occur “when you change the character of a neighborhood.”   A protégé of Carrie Meek and – thanks to recent redistricting – the legislator that represents the Westview residents in Tallahassee, Stafford’s biggest concerns are the environment, infrastructure, and what she calls “peace and enjoyment” as but a few examples of the “myriad of issues that come with the changing of the character of a neighborhood.”

The worries about the environmental impact are shared by residents, the NAACP, and the elder statesman of local architecture and planning, Ronald E. Frazier.

Frazier says that planners and developers can “draw a pretty picture on a plan” but those plans do not always match the reality of how those plans are executed.   He points that while Rosal Westview’s plans call for buffering and other measures to mitigate negative impact on the residents, “that does not stop carbon dioxide, the volume of traffic noise, or the glare of security lights.”  

The big question about the future of the Westview area for Frazier is – regardless of which decision is handed down when all is said and done – “will [the area] be stabilized by this?”  This question about the future of Westview as a healthy middle class neighborhood is raised often.   If people are forced to leave their homes, Frazier asks, “what kind of negative impact will that have?”  Nweze adds that the proposed change will almost certainly result in “property values going down.”

“It is dashing oil and hot water on the American dream,” she says.

In an interview before the legal challenges were filed by the homeowners, Robert Kemp, who has owned his home facing the golf course for forty years, echoed that fear.  “We are afraid we are not going to get a return on our investment,” said Kemp. “Some people can’t move – we have to fight.”

“My professional opinion,” says Frazier, “is that this is the worst instance of spot and incompatible land use and zoning that I have ever seen.”  

A longtime resident of the Westview area, United States Congressperson Federica Wilson expressed her views on the issue via a written statement.   While validating the concerns of her neighbors, Wilson appears to regard the change to the use of the old golf course as a fait accompli.   “The developer was able to secure the change in the zoning laws that he sought,” in spite of what she called an “impasse” between the residents and Rosal Westview.  

Wilson charged the parties responsible for any changes in the Master Plan with making sure that the neighborhood’s standard of living is protected and it also “benefits from the financial gains that accompany” those changes.  

But there will be at least few more months, if not more, before any one knows what those changes will be.

“Everything is on hold,” says Samms, until all legal actions are “resolved.”

“We won’t succumb to the county commission’s outrageous decision.” Still, as plaintiffs in the administrative challenge and the civil suit in circuit court, the burden of proof will be on the homeowners.

Miami-Dade County Attorney Dennis Kerbel says that the homeowners “will have to show that the amendment is not in compliance with state law.”

The fight is a hard one for people like Kemp and Samms.  Samms is the only lawyer among them and all are trying hard to keep fighting what they believe is a good fight.   “We’re willing to dig in and fight as long as we have to,” declares Samms. “This is our struggle.”