Developers wanting to expand the Urban Development Boundary for the first time since 2013 fell short on support with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Thursday, May 19th, securing a last-minute delay on a vote to turn 800 acres of farmland into a warehouse complex in an area environmental groups want protected.
A lengthy meeting on the future of farming, employment and Everglades protection in Miami-Dade County ended in a procedural fizzle. But the vote count wasn’t encouraging for developers Aligned Real Estate Holdings and Coral Rock Development.
Developers need nine of the 13 commissioners to vote to expand the UDB, a move opposed by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, county planning staff and environmental groups. At the end of the meeting, five commissioners voted to reject the application outright. That wasn’t enough to kill the project, but it showed developers didn’t have the support they needed to prevail.
The developers would need the other eight votes and to flip one of those five commissioners — Danielle Cohen Higgins, René Garcia, Eileen Higgins, Jean Monestime and Raquel Regalado — when the final vote arrives on a project slated for farmland with as many acres as the island village Key Biscayne. The board voted to take up the application again on June 1, this time without a public hearing.
“I think it was deferred because everyone on that side knew they were going to lose,” Levine Cava said after the meeting. “But it’s not over.”
Developers asked to move the UDB south of the Florida Turnpike and north of Moody Drive to create the South Dade Logistics and Technology District, a proposed mix of warehouses, shipping center, hotel and other commercial uses. Backers pitched the 9 million-square-foot project as a needed jobs center for the South Dade region, where residents endure lengthy commutes to jobs in Miami and Doral. With the site on land that commissioners had already designated for future UDB growth — an “urban expansion area” — supporters of the project urged the board not to delay on allowing the site to generate economic activity.
“I have a daughter who needs two to three hours to get to a job, and two to three hours to get home,” Bessie Young, a Homestead resident, said during a seven-hour meeting with 200 people signed up to address the board. “I’m speaking for my grandchildren. Please pass this.”
One of the most dramatic moments came when a major landowner in the proposed project stood up to tell commissioners he opposed moving the UDB, calling the effort “a fraud.”
County staff opposed the application in part because developers only controlled about 50% of the site, leaving in question how the other half would even be developed if commissioners approved the UDB expansion. While landowners must cooperate with zoning changes, they don’t have to sign on to applications to bring their property inside the Urban Development Boundary.
Leonard Abess Jr., a retired banker and major landowner in South Dade, fell into that category: His 160-acre holdings are within the boundaries of the proposed South Dade project. That land is key to the developers’ economic forecasts, with thousands of jobs pegged to the farmland Abess’ Archimedes holding companies own on the site.
‘There Is No Profit If You Lose Your Soul’
But speaking out on the project for the first time publicly, Abess called the application a “fraud.” He urged commissioners not to approve it, even if the development would eventually bring his family a windfall of about $100 million in future land sales.
“There is no profit if you lose your soul,” said Abess, who gained global fame in 2009 for giving employees about $60 million in profits from the sale of his family’s bank. “We absolutely oppose this.”
Nine commissioners initially voted to move the process forward in the fall. That included Garcia and Monestime, who opposed the project with their votes.
State and federal agencies involved in environmental regulation raised concerns about the project in their comment letters. They said it would cause pollution, make future Everglades restoration projects more difficult and potentially cause flooding in nearby neighborhoods. An umbrella group of environmental groups and other nonprofits, the Hold the Line coalition, produced an analysis in April slashing the employment estimates for the project in half, to about 5,000 new jobs at the most.
Miami-Dade County planning staff were some of the project’s biggest critics. In a final assessment of the proposed development, they found:
The project didn’t meet county guidelines for safe or approved development. It’s located in some of the most storm vulnerable land in Miami-Dade County, the coastal high hazard zone, where county code expressly warns against developing.
It didn’t properly explain why developers needed the UDB expansion when there are more than 500 acres of vacant industrially zoned property inside the county.
This land is included in several study options for Everglades restoration projects and could be important in future South Florida Water Management District plans to control flooding.
The site is part of land that the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project has identified as a possible use for restoring eastern flows of water into Biscayne Bay. In an October letter, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection said developing the land could hamper restoration efforts around Biscayne Bay.
“This vote today is a litmus test,” Eve Samples, director of the Friends of the Everglades, told commissioners. “The outcome will reflect whether your voiced support for Biscayne Bay translates into action.”
In his comments before the vote, Monestime revealed he opposed the application, saying groups and agencies criticizing the project persuaded him that Miami-Dade should wait before expanding the UDB in that area.
“We can be pro-business and pro-environment at the same time,” Monestime said.
Without Monestime, developers knew they couldn’t get the nine votes required under the county charter to expand the UDB. After Cohen Higgins’ failed motion to reject the project outright, Jeffrey Bercow, a lawyer for the developers, asked for the final vote to be delayed until the commission’s next regular meeting on June 1.
In an interview, Bercow said developers planned to alter some of their plans to bring enough commissioners back to their side in the next two weeks.
“It’s not over,” Bercow said. “We’ve got to retool our proposal.”
View the Miami Herald news video ‘Watch Public Testimony On UDB Expansion For Industrial Complex‘ below: