Appeal court rejects yet another Miami River residential project
By Risa Polansky
A third consecutive court decision overruling Miami commissioners' thumbs up to a land-use designation change that would have allowed a large residential development along the Miami River leaves local elected officials two options: follow the city's comprehensive plan to the letter or change it.
Mimicking two August decisions, a panel of judges in the Third District Court of Appeal said Miami leaders ignored the city's plan in approving a small-scale amendment that would have paved the way for Brisas del Rio, a proposed 20-story residential condo, to be built at 1583 NW 24th St.
Developer Homero Meruelo was out of town and unavailable for comment.
The three-judge panel, comprised of two different judges from the first two appeals, did not elaborate on its decision, writing only that it was "compelled" to remain "consistent with our opinions in those (previous) cases."
In reversing in August a land-use designation change that would have allowed two 12-story residential condominiums be built on a 4.3-acre property at 2215 NW 14th St., however, the panel was explicit, noting that such "small-scale" amendments to the city's comprehensive plan "when viewed together as a whole are changing the character of the Miami River waterfront without proper long-range planning or input from appropriate agencies, departments and citizen groups."
The court found that "such piecemeal, haphazard changes are not only ill-advised, they are contrary to the goals and objectives of those who worked together, debated and determined how the Miami River waterfront should be developed."
Because the judges for the third time concurred with such sentiments, "right now, what it means is that the application of the elements of the comprehensive plan will be very rigidly applied," said Maria Chiaro, the city attorney's land-use division chief. However, the decisions "do not in any way impact the ability of the government to clarify or change its river element of the comprehensive plan."
The plan as is calls for, among other measures, the city "help protect the Port of Miami River from encroachment by non water-dependent or water-related land uses, and shall regulate its expansion and redevelopment in coordination with the city's applicable coastal management and conservation plans and policies."
However, it also says the city "will continue to promote development of new, high quality, dense urban neighborhoods along the Miami River."
Following the decision in August, Commissioner Tomás Regalado said, "I don't think we should change the comprehensive plan. I think that what this shows is that the river's future is to have a working river, a river for entities to do business."
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff agreed "We need to always have a working river in the city of Miami."
Still, the court rulings reflect a larger issue, Ms. Chiaro said.
In the decisions, the "court appeared to be substituting its opinions for the governing body's," she said.
The city has requested a rehearing on the first two cases by the full panel of appeals court judges, as only three of 11 weighed in on the reversals, and plans to do the same for this one.
If the rehearings are not granted, she said, the city has asked the appeals court to recommend the cases to the Florida Supreme Court.
The three-judge panel also asked that the Brisas del Rio case return to the lower court that originally upheld the city's decision before the Durham Park Neighborhood Association, the Miami River Marine Group and Captain Herbert Payne appealed it.
While "it means we're going to have to go back to court," said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the marine group, "This is good for us. It makes our position more and more airtight. My hope is that we can stop this confrontational litigation way of finding solutions to problems and work together" with the city.