Vizcayans win in court; have small scuffle with trust over payment of legal fees
By Risa Polansky
It's strike two for high-rise condos planned for Mercy Hospital land.
Changes to Miami's comprehensive plan that would have allowed a Related Group project to be built on a hospital parking lot did not follow state planning rules, Administrative Judge J. Lawrence Johnston ruled last week.
Miami commissioners voted last year to rezone the 6.7-acre Mercy parking lot to allow the developer to build the planned three-tower complex.
A three-judge Circuit Court appellate panel overturned the rezoning in May, calling the city's decision "spot zoning."
The Related Group did not respond to requests for comment on the most recent ruling.
It comes as a victory to the Vizcayans, which brought the suit against the city and developer.
The private group — charged with fundraising for the county-owned Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — says the project could obstruct the famous views at the neighboring national historic landmark.
"We're not surprised at the outcome," President Norma Quintero said. "We always knew we were right."
The group wasn't right on all counts.
It couldn't prove that the new development would be incompatible with surrounding land uses, or that the change to the city's future land-use map was inconsistent with the Miami Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan or Florida's comprehensive plan, according to the judge's order.
But the Vizcayans did show that commissioners used insufficient data and analysis in amending the land-use map, prompting the judge's decision that the city's change is not in compliance with statutes.
City commissioners voted last week not to appeal.
After the initial May blow in court, then-Mercy Hospital President & CEO John Matuska said the hospital is still planning a facilities overhaul set to be funded through the land sale. Mercy is to make $96 million from buyer Ocean Land Investments.
Should the condos never be built, the company could still buy the property and potentially build an assisted living facility there, he said.
In the meantime, "we're not spending those dollars in anticipation we're going to get that money in this year or next year or the year after."
Mr. Matuska announced plans to resign this month, before the most recent court decision.
As litigation carries on — one challenge to the condo project is ongoing, and the developer could appeal — the Vizcayans continue to pay for the suit.
The organization secured a $500,000 line of credit backed by the museum's endowment fund, in part to pay for legal expenses, prompting questions from a few members of The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust, a county agency.
Many trust members also are Vizcayans, but some aren't.
"The few of us that were not Vizcayans were very surprised and very upset" to hear about the line of credit, trust board member Marili Cancio said.
"I'm just upset that the endowment fund was pledged for attorney's fees," she said. "That's what it boils down to."
The Vizcayans secured the line of credit for "general corporate purposes," said Vizcayan John Hinson, who has in part led the charge against the condo project.
Those could include costs related to the lawsuit.
"The endowment funds are assets of the Vizcayans to be used as the board of directors sees fit, but in keeping with our mission, which is to protect and preserve Vizcaya," he said. "Protecting its view shed (as the suit intends to do) is part of that mission."
Carlton Cole, treasurer of the public trust, agreed "they're private funds. They don't belong to the trust. The only restriction on the use of the funds is that they have to be used for the benefit of Vizcaya."
The Vizcayans, had members desired, could have taken it further, he said.
"If they had wanted to, they could have used endowment funds directly, they could have withdrawn the money, but they got the line of credit instead so they wouldn't touch the investments."
To examine potential conflicts, trust board vice chair Jose Villalobos is to meet with a county attorney. A full report is due to the board in September.
"I don't know that there's anything I would be concerned about," Mr. Villalobos said.
Ms. Cancio said he thinks the Vizcayans breached their operating agreement with the trust.
"It's not that we have anything against the Vizcayans, we appreciate their role," she said. "However, it's outrageous they would pledge the endowment fund that they were entrusted to keep."
Said Vizcayan President Ms. Quintero, "Everything we do, we do by the books. The Vizcayans did what we needed to do in order to preserve and protect Vizcaya. If we had to do it, we would do it all over again."