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Hacking the Development Code

The Politics of Zoning in Florida

by ALAN FARAGO

“Yale University economist Robert Shiller, pioneer of the widely watched Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index, said there’s a good chance housing prices will fall further than the 30 percent drop in the historic depression of the 1930s.”

Business Week, April 22, 2008

“Some experts are saying that home prices and interest rates have indeed reached their lowest, bottoming out!” Lennar spokesperson in The Miami Herald special advertising section, April 25, 2008, “Homes selling at record pace”

“Seeing rates like 1.95 percent when purchasing a home is something truly extraordinary nowadays!” Century Homebuilders in The Miami Herald special advertising section, April 25, 2008, “Local builder makes history by lowering interest rates to 1948 levels”

“Between the incredible fixed-rate financing starting at 2.88 percent and our prices at historic lows, it’s little wonder why our homes are selling virtually as fast as we can write the contracts!” Lennar spokesperson 

“Initial construction of U.S. homes fell to a 17-year low in March, a much steeper-than-expected drop, according to a government report released Wednesday.”

CNN "Money," April 16, 2008

The Miami Herald questioned the value of the civics lesson, yesterday, at County Hall where hundreds of young students, residents, taxpayers and the lobbying class spent hours waiting to voice the support they were encouraged to evince, for breaking through the line on a map separating; open space in Miami from suburbia, the Everglades from infrastructure service areas, and the edge of common sense from its antithesis.

Long before the session ended, dispirited opponents of the majority of the commission had left. There was nothing new in their objections: not enough water, bad roadways and unbearable traffic, a declining quality of life—all on account of local decision makers failing to properly assess the costs of growth where they occur.

The was only one innovation in yesterday’s performance in Miami-Dade: lobbyists seeking to move the Urban Development Boundary for their clients worked with the county chair, Bruno Barreiro, to schedule the public hearing on “Bring Your Child to Work Day”. That new twist ensured that a muscular effort to put a new Lowe’s Home Improvement and donated land for a school outside the Urban Development Boundary would pit environmentalists against cute and endearing swarms of 10 and 11 year olds, and not the typical desultory bystanders, political sycophants and other odds and ends of humanity paid to be there without really knowing why except for a free lunch in a paper bag.

There were only two applications, but they stood for everything. 

Opponents were counting on 5 votes against, in order to sustain a promised veto by County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. They only got 4, ensuring that Miami-Dade County is now on record opposing civic organizations, environmental groups, the State of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District.

Rebecca Sosa was the county commissioner whose vote changed, from the same applications and vote in 2005 that were denied by the county through the threat of a mayoral veto. The swing vote could have been North Miami district commissioner Sally Heyman but it wasn’t: the foreclosures and implosion of housing markets in Heyman’s district is so severe that she would have paid a higher political price had hers been the swing vote, rather than Sosa, to impose further costs on her constituents by voting to move the UDB. So goes the political calculus at the local level, held to be the place by the Republican party where government works best.

It might have all been foretold, had the unreformable majority of Miami-Dade’s county commission had the guts to tell the earnest students: what our votes will do today is cause the state to sue the county, and what the lawsuit will do is to irritate relations between powerful politicians, and that the outcome—in service of our political patrons—is at a higher pay grade than ours, or, your teachers. 

If those political patrons, the Latin Builders Association, the South Florida Builders, and the supply chain of developers, had been required to speak their convictions, what they would have said is this: the housing markets are coming back, the Federal Reserve is priming the pump of our industry, we need jobs and we will have jobs by the nail gun, by the cement mixer, and by the pallet of Mediterranean roofing tile. All will be well and the same, as soon as the champagne arrives.

But this is not what the students heard by a long shot. What they heard was: we need a new school, a new school outside the Urban Development Boundary.

There was a very good reason, but it was not mentioned in yesterday’s repeat performance, that Janet McAliley—long-time former school board member—persuaded her colleagues to adopt the policy shunning construction of new schools within one mile of the Miami-Dade Urban Development Boundary: schools attract growth. (Under pressure from developers, the “McAliley Line” dissolved.)

Yesterday, the advisability of putting schools at the urban fringe was never brought up. The august law firm Holland & Knight (and its ever diligent Juan Mayol whose performance was as calibrated as his hair) took care of that, with busloads of grade school children (You couldn’t help but note the absence of middle school or high school’ers who would have instantly caught wind of sulphorous drafts emanating from the Chamber). Of course they want a new school—as the case may be, a private charter school because Miami-Dade’s public school board, while not wanting to antagonize powerful development interests, doesn’t need or want a school at the Urban Development Boundary.

The other feature, in both applications to move the UDB, an improvement in traffic. In the case of the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store, the corporation—during the time from the first hearing by the county, review by the state (negative), and now—nearly doubled its commitment to pay for a new overpass, to nearly $5 million. But very few of the hundreds of thousands of commuters suffering now from lack of investment in roadway and mass transit improvements were there to insist that their needs be met first. This was not their day.

At the rate things are going in Miami-Dade, sea level rise will force residents to flee before the county ever gets around to meeting their mass transit needs.

So, on the surface, it was a new school and new traffic infrastructure that got the nine votes to force litigation against the county by the State, because the county violated its own rules and state planning law in approving the applications. 

In a very real sense, the school and roads are bait to get future approvals of new homes and new suburbs, despite the fact that Miami-Dade is choking on inventory of new homes, old homes, foreclosed homes, and half-empty new suburbs.

Yesterdays’ approvals were pushed to a fare-thee-well because they are placeholders for the next round of UDB applications or, as may separately emerge, huge new suburban tracts even closer to the Everglades. Of course this is well known to county planners and staff, but never a word mentioned or their heads would roll as surely as contracts to insider lobbyists at Miami International Airport.

As one opponent of the applications testified, the Urban Development Boundary is the only fact that stops development from encroaching to the literal edge of the Everglades as it does in Broward County, just to the north. It is a telling fact, because the point of the development industry is to pave every last square foot of property that has economic value at any time market conditions allow. 

That this point goes uncontested in either Democrat or Republican state politics may seem an amazement, given current multi-billion dollar budget deficits, rippling costs and tensions to local government: the growth pattern that led to such dire circumstances as the crash in housing markets is the third-rail of Florida politics. It surfaced, ever so briefly, by valiant County Commissioner Katy Sorenson who might as well have been dropping a stone into a dry well and waiting for the sound of water.

This is the civic lesson plan on view and that teachers should have used with their students to describe yesterday’s proceedings. But voters and taxpayers, if they bothered to listen, might still have had the adult version, should the mainstream media ever want to report it.

There is a very good reason to keep an enterprise like Lowe’s Home Improvement from the Urban Development Boundary: what Lowe’s wants is to improve homes. To improve homes, the Lowe’s business model needs more homes. 

We know exactly what happens by allowing Lowe’s and Holland and Knight and Greenberg Traurig and County Commissioners and buses of residents whose lunch is paid for to persuade more growth at edges. Edges like Sweetwater, where Pepe Diaz still believes he is a hero for insisting on flood control for his people. It’s the 8.5 Mile Area effect and the reason that twenty years after Congress authorized Mod Waters to help restore the water flow in the East Everglades it is still not done—a project whose costs have ballooned from less that $100 million to close to $1 billion: still no restoration and Florida Bay is filled to the brim with toxic bacteria.

And that is a very big problem with growth that fails to pay its own way, a description that fits most of the growth in Florida that sprawls from inner city to the edges: the entire model only works through subterfuge, manipulation of incumbents in districts hardened against challengers, and control of the operations of government including, in this case, the county charter.

I put myself in the position and mindset of the interests of people who live in the western reaches of Miami Dade County, near the Urban Development Boundary.

Edges attract people. People require services. Businesses thrive at the edges. Political contributions can be scooped from the edges like minnows from shallow water at the shoreline.

If there was a defining moment in yesterday’s hearing, it was the exchange between Michael Pizzi and County Commissioner Natacha Seijas (also noted in today’s front page article in The Miami Herald). Pizzi is a well-regarded attorney and city commissioner from Miami Lakes. He has emerged as an effective and outspoken voice against the costs of suburban sprawl and the incumbency of Seijas, who also lives in Miami Lakes and is the de facto chair of the county commission.

The unprecedented and bitter attempt to recall Seijas last year was waged by a group of taxpayers and residents who are sickened by the costs of suburban sprawl to farmland, communities, and infrastructure. These were not identical to, but related, to the movement to protect the Urban Development Boundary, called “Hold the Line”.

The recall against Seijas failed because her defense attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from developers and the supply chain feeding on sprawl and the expansion of the Urban Development Boundary.

In his three minutes of allotted time, Pizzi made the argument against moving the Urban Development Boundary, citing the massive infrastructure deficits that plague Miami Dade County at a time of plunging real estate values, tax revenues, and the most series budget crisis afflicting state and local governments since the Great Depression.

“Insanity,” Pizzi said, “Is when you keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.” It was a point underscoring the argument that county commissioners have been derelict in their responsibilities to protect the health, welfare and safety of taxpayers.

But Seijas impulsively seized the microphone; she couldn’t resist. “This is the one point on which I agree with Mr. Pizzi”, she responded with a small smile of satisfaction before yielding back to the chair.

It was a barb aimed at all the opponents of suburban sprawl, against the residents who had hauled themselves to the county chamber filled with school children to express their dismay at a Lowe’s at the edges, a school that will likely be operated by private charter whose owners, guaranteed, contribute to conservative, right-wing causes in one way or another.

It was a way of Seijas saying, you do-good’ers keep coming here again and again, every two years, every time there is an application to move the UDB or a Development of Regional Impact, expecting us to vote differently. 

If she had added, “Screw you and all of you,” it would have raised nary an eyebrow from the unreformable majority on the dais.

In the past few days, leading up to yesterday’s vote, The Miami Herald published a handful of stories and an editorial against voting to move the Urban Development Boundary, The coverage has been fitful and no energy spent to educate and inform about the swirling agendas beneath the facts. The newspaper business is struggling fiercely against economic headwinds, including the loss of advertising from the same business and development interests that profited, and paid for newspaper advertisements, by moving the Urban Development Boundary.

Local television news coverage scarcely deserves comment: in the case of Univision it is always slanted to the good old boy network of developers, whatever its shape or form.

The minority votes from the dais: to commissioners Katy Sorenson, Carlos Gimenez, Sally Heymann and to Dennis Moss deserve praise.

If you take the performance of the county commission majority, on Thursday, and match it alongside the presentation to the county commission two days earlier, on global warming, there is reason to despair that rationale persuasion can limit the worst tendencies of capitalism to foul our nest.

What it means that Seijas both spear-heads the movement of the UDB, whenever and wherever it occurs, and also the advisory task force on climate change is open to interpretation, but I can only attribute it to the most cynical motive: it will be someone else’s problem.

For the time being, Lowe’s did its job: acting as the icebreaker in this cycle of applications to move the Urban Development Boundary. In the next cycle, it will be some other deep-pocketed corporation. Maybe Home Depot. Maybe Costco. The names and faces are interchangeable: the Growth Machine wants its party back.

And all the same commissioners representing inner city neighborhoods, if they haven’t been removed or indicted, will be taking campaign contributions from the lobbyists, developers, speculators and the supply chain to cement their incumbency in return for their votes to wreck the suburbs even as they push them out to the Everglades.

Mayor Alvarez will veto, as he has promised, these applications. The State of Florida will defend the strong report, recommending denial of these applications, by the Florida Department of Community Affairs. And in Tallahassee, where the legislative session is winding down, a concerted attack has been raised to radically pare back the agency’s budget led, no doubt, by the Miami hackers of the development code.

Nothing would give the Growth Machine in Miami-Dade County more pleasure than to see an agency like the Florida Department of Community Affairs hobbled by cutbacks. It is also what former Governor Jeb Bush wanted all along as the housing boom was rising to unfathomable heights, urged on by Wall Street and its legions of financial engineers gathering fees and commissions in the billions: to empty Tallahassee of government workers and to give more power and authority where it can do best. Right here, right at County Hall.

And there is the real agenda: in Florida Republican politics there is sharpening rift between Governor Charlie Crist and the remnants of the Jeb Bush era organized, mainly, around Miami developers, their proxies and land speculators who can’t liquidate or salvage their ever-increasing costs outside the Urban Development Boundary until the underlying zoning changes.

ALAN FARAGO lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net