The 1,200-acre square of unincorporated industrial land that’s home to Telemundo and Goya Foods offers more than $1 million in potential tax revenue a year for the two Miami-Dade cities near it, and Sweetwater and Doral both want to annex the area.
On Tuesday, July 20th, county commissioners voted to take Doral out of the contest.
Legislation by Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the commission chairman who also represents both municipalities, imposes new annexation restrictions prohibiting the kind of catty-corner expansion Doral needs.
The city’s plan calls for absorbing the area that sits off its southwest corner by the Florida Turnpike, between Northwest 12th and 25th streets and west of the Dolphin Mall.
Sweetwater borders the area to the east, so wouldn’t be hurt by the Diaz ordinance, which passed with a 10-3 vote. Voting against the legislation were Commissioners Keon Hardemon, Eileen Higgins and Joe Martinez.
Speaking by video while isolating after a recent COVID-19 diagnosis, Diaz said during the county commission meeting that it was time to lock in county rules limiting municipal expansions to land facing their boundaries.
That would bring county rules in line with Florida regulations requiring that municipal boundaries expand into adjacent areas. As a home-rule county with authority outlined in the Florida Constitution, Miami-Dade has more autonomy to set its own annexation rules.
Diaz’s ordinance requires at least 500 feet of adjoining land in an annexation, and includes a rule barring connections by intersections — which is where Doral would link with the annexation area diagonally at Northwest 25th Street and Northwest 117th Avenue.
“If it hurts the city of Doral, I apologize,” Diaz said. “It is the right thing to do.”
Diaz used emergency authority created in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic last year to skip a committee hearing for the legislation, moving his ordinance directly to the full board.
“It is moving through this process incredibly fast,” said Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich, president of the Doral Community Coalition, which opposed the rule change.
Beyond the debate over when to let cities expand their boundaries in Miami-Dade County, the fight over the Diaz proposal includes some political intrigue. The powerful chairman must leave his District 12 seat next year due to term limits, and Sweetwater’s full-time mayorship may be an attractive landing spot for Diaz, who held the post between 1999 and 2002.
Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez is leading the annexation push to nearly double the size of the city, and he might run for Diaz’s commission seat.
That would create an open seat if the outgoing chairman wanted to return to lead a city that could have a far larger tax base than when he last held the post. The District 12 race already has a well-known candidate: Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez, who isn’t shy about connecting the annexation fracas with Diaz’s political future.
“He is changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Bermudez said of Diaz. “He is benefiting the city where he was once the mayor and apparently where he wants to be mayor again.”
Lopez, whose second term expires in 2023, said he hasn’t decided about seeking Diaz’s commission seat. He said the Diaz annexation legislation represents a fair change in the rules that protects Sweetwater from the ambitions of its more prosperous neighbor to the north.
The median income in Sweetwater, population 21,000 according to Census statistics, is just below $40,000, compared to nearly $78,000 for Doral, population 66,000.
“Doral is basically turning this into a power grab,” Lopez said. He said Doral is trying to add “the best areas in order to make a rich city richer.”
This is the second big annexation tussle between the two neighboring municipalities.
In 2010, Sweetwater won out over Doral in the bid to annex the land area that includes the Dolphin Mall. That annexation more than doubled Sweetwater’s footprint, and extended its boundaries north to fill in a corner on the southwestern edge of Doral.
Bermudez said that annexation, championed by Diaz, showed Miami-Dade’s willingness to endorse unconventional expansions, since the added area stretched Sweetwater’s boundaries north around an unincorporated area before spreading out to encompass the mall.
The vote still leaves Sweetwater needing county permission to annex the area, a move already facing opposition from commercial land owners there. Because the two-mile area includes no homes, a referendum isn’t needed since the land contains no addresses for registered voters.
Miguel De Grandy, the lawyer and lobbyist representing Sweetwater, told commissioners the change made sense because it would require more logical expansion of city limits and avoid the kind of irregular boundary arrangements Doral proposed.
“They filed an application they knew made no planning sense and was contrary to the state’s public policy,” De Grandy said of Doral.
Annexing the area would mean big tax hikes for land owners, since Sweetwater charges a municipal property-tax rate that’s more than double what Miami-Dade charges for police patrols, road maintenance and other municipal services on land outside city limits.
Sweetwater’s municipal tax rate is about $399 for every $100,000 of taxable value, compared to the $192 per $100,000 municipal rate property owners pay in Miami-Dade’s unincorporated areas.
In a June 14 letter to a county planning board, Telemundo Executive Vice President Mónica Gil said the broadcaster’s decision to spend $250 million building its studio in the area five years ago was based on county and state economic subsidies designed to offset tax bills. The property’s 2020 tax bill for municipal services was about $101,000, according to county records.
“While the annexation analysis may not be required to account for this, we must inform you that our decision to invest and locate in this area was based on a very clear understanding of our tax obligations projected well into the future,” Gil wrote.
Doral has pointed to its lower tax rate, just slightly higher than Miami-Dade’s, as a selling point for its annexation proposal over Sweetwater’s. After the vote, Bermudez said the fight may not be over, with legal action a possibility.
Hardemon, a former Miami city commissioner and once the president of Miami-Dade’s League of Cities organization, predicted Doral would go to court as well.
“We know if we do this, there’s going to be a lawsuit,” Hardemon said during the meeting, arguing the board should just pick Sweetwater’s annexation application over Doral’s at a later meeting instead of altering the rules ahead of time. “In effect, you have an application that was started, and the law changed right in the middle of it. And it’s going to appear it was for reasons that were beneficial to the chairman.”
Source: Miami Herald