Thursday, May 23, 2013

Westview Fight Goes to Court

Westview Fight Goes to Court
Story & photographs by José Pérez

The ongoing battle over the future of an old golf course and the residential neighborhoods that surround it will finally have its day in court this week several months after the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve an amendment to the County’s Development Master Plan that would allow an unprecedented crush of warehouses and truck traffic in a residential neighborhood. That decision has outraged residents and activists who have been busy trying to raise much-needed funds to cover mounting legal expenses.

This past Saturday, while their legal team was working on last minute preparations for an administrative hearing scheduled for this morning [THURSDAY] at the Miami-Dade County Building at 111 N.W. 1st Street at 9 a.m., the Golf Park residents hosted a fish fry to raise funds to pay their mounting legal bills.  

This week’s hearing is an appeal that will be held before the State Administrative Tribunal.   At issue is a plan to build warehouses in the heart of a middle class black neighborhood.  The administrative challenge was filed by homeowners in response to a decision by the County Commission last autumn to approve a change in the Master Plan or CDMP that would rezone the site of the former Westview Golf and Country Club that straddles NW 119 Street from “parks and recreation” to heavy use industrial.  “What the County Commission did was illegal because it went against the CDMP,” said Greg Samms, an attorney and member of the Golf Park HOA.

According to Samms, a civil lawsuit filed by homeowners in Circuit Court seeking an injunction to block the proposed development by Rosal Westview LLC, new owners of the nearly 200-acre property “was dropped because the opposition agreed that we could bring in the administrative hearing our state issues. Therefore there was no need to have duplicitous proceedings.”

The developer has insisted previously that it will build on a quarter of the eight million square feet of space and, of that, almost a half million square feet will be retail. Another 1.6 million square feet will be used for what they call “a business park.”   Rosal Westview’s Robert Saland told the South Florida Times that he was not able to comment on the matter because of its pending litigation status.

Residents have adamantly opposed the plan, insisting that warehouses will have adverse impacts on their health, property values, safety, and sense of community. “We’re not against development at all. We’re just against industrial,” said Samms.

Activists like Bradford Brown of the NAACP and Doretha Nichson support the homeowners.  Nichson, accused the county commission and the developers of “playing havoc with what our vision of the community is.”  Brown described the track record of developers in Miami-Dade County as “nothing but a history of broken promises.”    

The legal battle is a daunting one for the residents.   Samms said the standard for the appeals hearing is “fairly debatable.”  According to Samms, under the “fairly debatable” standard, the tribunal must decide if a fair debate existed in the hearing.   That means that the question therein is whether or not there was a fair debate on the matter, not if the county commission was made a wrong decision.   

Robert Lincoln, a land use attorney for Icard Merrill, a firm in Southwest Florida, said that “fairly debatable” is a “special standard” based on Chapter 163 of Florida Statutes which is “less differential.”   

“If two different people looking at the decision can reasonably disagree” about the validity of a plan to amend a CDMP, the hearing officer’s decision “tips over to the local government,” said Lincoln.   Proving that the county violated its own CDMP is “a huge burden,” he added.  

Because of that, Samms is already planning for the strong possibility of an unfavorable outcome during the hearing.   That means that the next battles would be in zoning and, if necessary, the site planning phase.

Samms also shared that the developer has retained the services of the firm of White & Case, which he called “one of the top land use firms.”   

While Rosal Westview’s legal team has been strengthening, Golf Park HOA’s has been circling the wagons.  The attorney who originally represented the homeowners, Tucker Gibbs, had to leave the case because of health reasons.  Frank Wolland is now filling in for Gibbs.   A former mayor of North Miami and land-use expert, Wolland is, according to his website, a “Former Chairman [of the] North Miami Planning Commission.”   

For Samms, this late change presents yet another challenge in what some regard as an uphill battle.   Because of the change in personnel, the Golf Park legal team asked for and received a continuance that pushed back the hearing date three days.  “We could not get any more time,” said Samms, “because under administrative rules when the opposition files a motion for an expedited hearing it must be granted.

Sylvia Kemp, President of the Golf Park HOA, said that last week’s fish fry was a continuation of their efforts.   The group has already hosted two garage sales, with the majority of items for sale being donated by area residents, and another fish fry and garage sale scheduled for this upcoming Saturday.   For the determined group of long-time homeowners, the garage sales and fish fries have had two purposes.   The first, said Kemp, is “to secure funds for our legal support.”   The other reason is “an opportunity to engage our neighbors.”   That outreach in the neighborhood has also involved old-fashioned door-to-door contact as well as utilizing social media.  Just over the past week or so, the homeowners group, which is registered as a non-profit, has created its own facebook and twitter pages as well as its own home page.

Jennifer Walker, a member of the Golf Park HOA, described the group’s efforts as “a real fight.”

“This is a few fighting for the many and a lot of them don’t understand how real this is.”