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Increased density builds dread over watershed study

South Florida Business Journal - 2/9/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Susan Stabley

It may be the most controversial plan in the history of south Miami-Dade County - and it hasn't even been completed yet.

Advocates of the South Miami-Dade County Watershed Study have begun reaching out to cities that would be affected by the plan - from Cutler Bay to Coral Gables and Palmetto Bay to Pinecrest - in an attempt to counter an opposition movement already under way.

Five years and more than $3 million in the making, the watershed study was created to map growth through 2050 in an about 371-square-mile area south of Southwest Eight Street - also known as Tamiami Trail - from Krome Avenue on the west to Biscayne National Park on the east.

Raising hackles are recommendations that residential development density be focused along U.S. 1 and Kendall Drive. Under the plan, transportation projects with dedicated funding would be delivered in conjunction with development.

It's the increased density that's building dread - an additional 204,000 new homes are projected by 2050.

Cities in the study area "feel left out of the process," Paul Wallace said during a Feb. 5 meeting of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, adding that there was a "great deal of fear" among residents.

While a member of the council, the Hinshaw & Culbertson real estate attorney said he was speaking as a citizen of Cutler Bay, and that many share the sentiment that there is "a secret agenda by some bureaucracy."

Wallace urged the council to make sure that the will of people was taken into consideration, rather than merely a push to sell the study.

"I don't have any concept of what the plan is supposed to be about," he said.

Development line held until 2025

The plan has 68 recommendations, including a freeze on an urban development boundary intended to control sprawl.

Under county law, development to the west and south of the UDB line is restricted to five residential units per acre. Several development groups, including D.R. Horton and Lennar, want the line pushed back so they can build, but projections generated by the watershed study argue that there is enough land in the county for building through 2025.

Several citizen groups have fought movement of the line and gathered support from surrounding cities to hold the line.

Council member Carlos Gimenez, also a Miami-Dade County commissioner and former Miami city manager, reiterated to fellow council members that the cities speaking out against added density signed petitions in opposition to moving the UDB line.

"I guess they want to go to heaven, but they don't want to die," he said, adding: "Those cities will definitely have a say."

An advisory group met 55 times since their first gathering on July 26, 2001, to craft out the watershed study, which was funded by Miami-Dade County and the South Florida Regional Water Management District and organized by the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

In December, a final draft was finished. Fort Lauderdale-based consulting firm Keith and Schnars should have the plan ready for public consumption by March. Draft and other documents for the plan are available online at www.southmiamidadewatershed.com

South Florida Regional Planning Council planner Robert J. Daniels told the board that meetings are being held with affected cities to counteract what he described as "a good bit of misinformation that was distributed."

One e-mail circulated by activists and obtained by the South Florida Business Journal suggested the added density could be approved without public hearings. But the study is subject to public hearings before the Miami-Dade County Commission, the authority that can water down the recommendations or enact some or all of them as law.

Fate in hands of County Commission

To decide, the County Commission will have to balance the interests of several conflicting groups, from the study area's residents to agricultural land owners, and from environmental groups squaring off with builders, said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, also a regional planning council member. Moss told the board he was concerned that areas marked off as urban expansion zones, where development will be allowed once the line is moved, may need to be reconsidered, depending on what the current patterns of growth.

"The urban expansion areas were created years ago," he said. "The county needs to look at [these areas] today to see if they still make sense."