Miami River sea change would end years of back and forth
By Risa Polansky
A sea change in city government's Miami River policy would mark the end of years of back and forth over the future of the waterway.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado is looking to steer new commissioners away from what he views as the past administration's emphasis on waterfront residential development to bring the city back in line with policies that protect the marine industry.
Ongoing river issues can be traced to 2004, when commissioners approved a land-use designation and zoning change to the site of a self-help boatyard to allow a large-scale residential complex.
The Miami River Marine Group challenged that along with two other similar cases, and in 2007 a panel of Third District Court of Appeal judges ruled against the city in a string of harsh opinions.
One asserted 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."
The city at the time filed for re-hearings and has been waiting ever since — until Mr. Regalado moved last week to put the kibosh on the lingering litigation.
Commissioners agreed, voting to direct the city attorney's office to drop it.
"I believe if we abandon the appeal it's just sending a message that we are willing to consider a change in policy," Mr. Regalado said.
There's still a ways to go when it comes to a full-on policy shift.
In contending that the city turned a blind eye on its comprehensive plan, the appellate judges recommended either following the document or changing it.
The city took the "change it" course.
The commission voted in May 2008 to turn the plan's "Port of Miami River" element into a "Miami River" element despite objections from the marine industry and the city's Planning Advisory Board.
Administrators and proponents called it an effort to clear the way for more development flexibility, not an attempt to force the marine industry out as others saw it.
The state's Department of Community Affairs that year rejected the proposed changes.
But the city persisted, prompting litigation from the state.
To avoid further court action, the city, the state department and the intervening Miami River Marine Group met for mediation in October.
The mediation process is open but on hold for now.
Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff was on board with the Regalado initiative to kill the appeals process in the courts but said "I think we need to do more."
He suggested a public meeting with river stakeholders that would yield within 45 days recommendations for resolving the issues with the state.
But City Attorney Julie Bru balked, asking for a chance to brief new commissioners privately given the outstanding mediation process.
Mr. Sarnoff agreed to allow time to bring the new lawmakers up to speed and called for a public river policy discussion Feb. 11.
The Miami River Marine Group has been hoping for such a meeting, seeing opportunity in that city leadership has changed, attorney Andrew Dickman said in an interview after last week's commission meeting.
Two of the biggest proponents of residential river development — former Mayor Manny Diaz and Commissioner Angel Gonzalez — are now out of office.
Should the February discussion result in an amended proposal for the river, the state would need to give the OK and propose tweaks if needed, sending a settlement back to the city for public hearing and approval.
Accepting the settlement would end litigation with the state — though the marine group could continue the lawsuit if industry players' concerns aren't satisfied.
"That's what we're trying to avoid," Mr. Dickman said.
He called the elected officials' move last week encouraging and indicative that "they favor the development of jobs and economic development on the river."
The hope, he said, is that the litigation over the comprehensive plan amendments "will also be resolved in a similar fashion."