The Suburbs March On

Some people are burying their cash in backyards. The wealthiest developers in Miami are burying their cash in a plan to build a small city in 2014 at the far western frontier of Miami-Dade County edging toward the Everglades called Parkland.

Into the headwind of the biggest crash in housing values since the Depression, the owners of Parkland are winding their way through Florida’s planning approval process. To understand how poorly the public interest is served by Florida’s growth rules, you need patience and a willingness to follow the worst forms of development through its initial stages to conclusion.

Today, Parkland is 1,000 acres of farmland outside the Urban Development Boundary, purchased by a group of politically influential developers at sky high prices during the late stage of the housing market bubble. Today they are seeking a zoning change to move the urban growth curb obstructing their development. If they get their way, a small city of 18,000 residents will grow when the market revives. And revive it will, as it was, if they have anything to see about the billions of dollars unleashed to build infrastructure and help crippled economies. After who know best if not local authority?

Of the Parkland supporters scrounged up to appear at County Hall yesterday, one spoke exactly to why bad development encroaching to Everglades “restoration” must be stopped: the young woman who may or may not have lived in the area testified, “There is nothing out there.” In other words, there was nothing there before the new suburbs. Now that we are there, with our two cars, satellite dishes and Mediterranean roof tiles, give us something more than row crops for neighbors. Not vegetables, or tropical fruit, or avocado groves; give me parks and schools for my children, and movie theaters to escape for all of us.

Today, only a few miles from Parkland is some of the most egregious examples of suburban sprawl in the nation. People stuck in cars,in unremitting traffic, living in flood plains underserved by infrastructure, with mounting fees and taxes, tend to think that the maladies of modern life are the inevitable costs of progress; they are not. They are the function of deliberate decisions socializing the cost and risk of bad planning in order to maximize the profits of developers and the entire supply chain of the real estate industry; from the lowest rung of local zoning to the highest ether of Wall Street where laying off risk provides an opportunity for wealth generation through the securitization of debt, including projects like Parkland and dozens of others.

Parkland was the big show in the main ring of yesterday’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) meeting in downtown Miami. The board is comprised of political appointees, representing the thirteen single member districts in Miami-Dade County. They are appointed by the county commission, and in their demeanor and performance represent the composition of the unreformable majority of the county commission; whose incumbency and insularity is as guaranteed as AAA rated debt by Moodys so long as the campaign finance system is dominated by interests who profit from zoning decisions in farmland; interests, in other words, like Parkland.

The PAB is only one step on the way to approval, but an important one leading to a vote by the full county commission in a few weeks.

By the time the Parkland proposal was heard, it was nearly one in the afternoon; most of the assembled crowd at County Hall had been in their russet movie-style seats since early morning. In one section, African Americans suporting the project who had little to gain or to show for the day but a few dollars and a dinner for coming. In another section, Hispanic advocates who similarly earned more than goodwill for their presence. Few had a clue what they were bearing witness to, nor apparently did the mainstream media in attendance.

Their presence was for the public record; for the former, in the eventual case of lawsuits against the plan, and for the latter–the media–, another chance to miss reporting the origins of the housing debacle.

Scattered throughout, a handful of civic minded and conservationists convinced–with good reason–that putting 18,000 more residents in the position to demand more flood control is another nail in the Everglades coffin, whose nails already weigh in aggregate more than the coffin itself. None, however, mentioned that 2014 is within one mortgage cycle of sea level rise predicted for South Florida.

The public hearing unfolded as an entirely pro forma routine, a charade of well-rehearsed places. Why should such a predetermined outcome take hours to complete, when judging from the result, the votes of the board members could have been as easily submitted scribbled on post-it-notes right away?

Parkland is only a few miles from Everglades National Park, the centerpiece of the largest environmental restoration effort in history. Already, $8 billion has been spent on various pieces that may or may not connect up to anything that looks like a tangible result, depending mostly on whether big industrial-scale projects like Parkland or a massive “inland port” planned for western Palm Beach County take root in the landscape before anything resembling restoration takes place.

A day earlier, at a meeting in Tavernier at the head of the Florida Keys a meeting of Everglades agency staffers allowed a reporter to write, “The first eight years of a two-decade schedule to restore the Everglades and Florida Bay have produced few tangible changes, experts acknowledged Tuesday.” Not that any of the Parkland developer have much to boast of, of their own industry’s tangible results in the past eight years.

If the record of the last eight years is bad for the Everglades, it is actually worse for production home builders like those assembled under the corporate partnership of Parkland. The entire business model for sprawl has disappeared, vanished in the flames of a financial crisis. What the last eight years and previous decades in places like Parkland disclose are the drainage canals supported by Congress and farms and land speculators and property rights activists and new homeowners, oblivious to the lost record of natural history, taxpayers logging countless, unquestioned hours stuck in traffic, left with infrastructure deficits following the march of tarmac, of strip malls, office parks, and gated communities westward. The few and the lucky banked a lot of money on the back of such results in Florida, Arizona, in California and Colorado; the fast growing regions now at the epicenter of crashing housing markets.

Lacking any other idea how to reclaim their investment, Parkland’s owners are pushing forward on a wing and a prayer that what doesn’t work in 2008 will rise Pheonix-like in 2014.

The PAB meeting took hours to complete, with approval assured by the developers’ lobbyists who watched the proceedings on live video feed; Ramon Rasco, former organizer of the Homestead Air Force Base fiasco and chairman of US Century Bank, Sergio Pino, Ed Easton, both Bush loyalists, and Rodney Barreto, Governor Charlie Crist’s appointed chair of the Florida Wildlife Commission. All, members of good standing in the Latin Builders Association, the South Florida Builders Association, the National Association of Homebuilders, the Chamber of Commerce, and appealing charities.

Parkland is being called a “green” development. But it is “green” the way that a chameleon is green in the grass. It is green by folding its nature to camoflague its real interests. At this point in nation’s narrative, being green is a good way to play into the mainstream without attracting attention to the fact that the very developers who used politics to inflate the toxic housing bubble in Florida need another tactic to pump the air back into ether.

County planning staff– all good and solid professionals — advised the Planning Advisory Board to deny the project. But the minds of the appointees had been made up long before the meeting began, never mind what the professionals had to say in objection. When the public hearing was closed it was clear that the appointees minds had been closed long before it even began.

After all, even if the 18,000 future residents never materialize, or materialize only in small numbers, someone will need to do their accounting work, the real estate deeds and titles, someone will need to lay the water pipe, and if it’s not me–the thinking goes– then there are always other government agencies whose approval is more necessary than mine.

It didn’t used to be this way, in Florida’s growth planning regime. In the late 1990’s, the developer driven Florida legislature approved the following damaging change to Florida law: allowing major projects like Parkland, called “developments of regional impacts” or DRI’s to proceed at the same time and on the same permitting path as changes to the local jurisdiction’s master plan. The way it had been was to require the details of the DRI to be disclosed to the public first, through a series of public hearings and planning thresholds. Only after the details had been thoroughly disclosed was the developer, then, allowed to apply for a change to the local zoning and master plan map.

Now, the development industry is “allowed” to police itself through the permitting process; assuring in the early stages like the planning advisory board meeting that all the details will be ironed out through consultations and in collaboration with dozens of government agencies– though it is known full well that once the political process of development approval is set in motion by affirmative votes, all the rest is muscle.

The planning board member representing the district in question, Jay Sosna, offered a motion to “deny and not transmit”, that would have had the effect of shutting down Parkland. Sosna tried to alert his colleagues on the dais to the burden of congested roadways in the area, the plight of commuters who spend up to three hours a day in cars commuting twenty miles to work downtown and back at night, but his words dropped like a stone in a well.

The motion to deny and not transmit failed on a count of 7-3. A second motion, by Al Maloof, to “approve and transmit” was quickly approved by the same margin. It was over.

The matter is headed to a public hearing on December 18th at the full county commission. The outcome is likely to be approval or the developers would not be marching forward. The only drama left is whether the Parkland will emerge with a margin of victory to override a mayoral veto, by Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

It is dispiriting to see how these predetermined outcomes rule the day, even in the teeth of the worst housing market crash since the Depression.

The only frisson during the entire session occurredmafter the public hearing had closed, when a representative of the planning department stepped forward to offer an analysis of the alarming rate of foreclosures in the county. It was a point that several of opponents had emphasized from the speaker’s podium, to refute the need for more housing, hence no need to permit another city closer to the Everglades. Tens of thousands of foreclosures dot Miami’s urban landscape, within the Urban Development Boundary; why build more until all the available housing is absorbed by the marketplace?

The developer’s main argument–faulty statistics by county planners in assessing available housing stock to the year 2018 –is wrecked by the volume of foreclosures and abandoned homes in Miami Dade. This moment of reality intruding was more than the Parkland lobbyists could bear.

You had to be in the front row to witness what happened, when county staff introduced a matter off the meticulously planned script for the proceeding, planned by a dozen highly paid lobbyists, lawyers, engineers and planners. It was as though an Indian had stepped off the Reservation. Suddenly, the lobbyists began squirming. Jeffrey Bercow, the developer’s lead lawyer/lobbyist, standing watch at the podium began stiffening in several directions at once, attracting the attention of his allies on the dais. The chair of the Planning Advisory Board, compliant to a fault, quickly shut down the offending voice, cutting him off less than a minute into his explanation, in mid sentence.

In the end, not even a Depression could obstruct the approval of more suburbs edging to the Everglades.

The end game for Parkland may be predicted by events unfolding in an administrative law court room, with respect to two 2005 applications to move the Urban Development Boundary; the county commission approved, the mayor vetoed, the commission over-rode, the state of Florida rejected, and in a few weeks those applications are headed to court and possibly, later, to the 3rd District Court of Appeals where they would be heard by a panel of judges appointed by the governor.

Here is the bottom line: the Miami-Dade County Commission is being used as a cudgel to beat up on the office of the governor, lead today by the amiable Charlie Crist, and the state planning agency. Notwithstanding Crist’s eternally sunny disposition, the enmity is the smoldering remnant of Jeb Bush’s two terms as governor, largely supported by Miami-Dade’s developers like the owners of Parkland.

But times changed. The lead corporate partner of Parkland is Lennar Homes, a shrunken production home builder leading the charge to Congress, grousing for subsidies and bailouts. Lennar and its private partners are determined to party on like it was 2005, with taxpayers help. It used to be called the free market.

There is no better argument for Florida Hometown Democracy–a citizen’s petition initiative to amend the Florida constitution giving voters a choice and vote on projects like Parkland– than spending a few hours listening and watching the Kabuki Theater that passes for growth management in Florida. But the owners of Parkland hear the drumbeat, and if they have their way–and if bankruptcy doesn’t come first–Parkland will be on the books and grandfathered before voters have a chance.

ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com





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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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