Jobs, economic high tide may flow from city, marine industry river deal
By Risa Polansky
After a years-long battle, the City of Miami and the Miami River marine industry have reached a compromise on policy for the waterway — and one that opens the floodgates for jobs and economic development, players say.
Commissioners are set to discuss the proposed agreement today (5/27).
An about-face from what opponents called a past emphasis on residential development, the proposed city policy recognizes the river as a port and emphasizes protecting the working waterfront, as well as leveraging it to develop jobs.
"It's a whole new lease on life," Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, said Tuesday.
The conflict — apparently soon to end — began during the real estate boom when commissioners began approving land-use changes to allow large residential developments along the river.
The marine industry fought back, and in 2007 appellate court judges wrote a string of harsh opinions contending that the city turned a blind eye on its comprehensive plan, recommending either following or changing it.
Officials opted for change, voting to turn the plan's "Port of Miami River" sub-element into the "Miami River" sub-element.
Florida's Department of Community Affairs in 2008 rejected the proposed changes, but the city persisted, prompting litigation from the state that the industry joined in on.
But a sea change began in January, when new Mayor Tomás Regalado asked that the city quit fighting the years-old lawsuits over the land use changes on the three river parcels.
Then, taking cues from Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff, administrators began work on comprehensive plan changes meant to smooth things over with the state and the industry — and to cement new, marine-friendly river policy for future.
The city's planning department proposed a compromise in March that would have put the word "port" back, but moved the river element out of the ports section of the plan.
The industry took issue with that and other elements.
But now, two months later, "we've hammered out an agreement," said Andrew Dickman, the attorney who for years has represented the river marine industry.
"It's a very progressive settlement with regard to preserving the working waterfront — I think it's one of the most progressive in the state," he said.
And not only that, but he predicts the new policy will "kick-start the business on the river and really help the economy of the river meet its fullest potential."
Under the proposal, the word "port" would remain, and the river element would stay put in the ports section.
Also, the three contentious properties would be designated industrial.
And as far as the residential issue, "everyone felt comfortable with the language about balancing the compatibility of neighborhoods with the working waterfront uses, and there's language in there regarding that," Mr. Dickman said.
Job creation is a focus, with a section calling for the city to "foster or develop and implement job training, vocational and educational programs to assist the City's existing and future residents, water dependent and water related businesses and uses along the Miami River, in achieving economic self-sufficiency…"
The marine group's Ms. Bohnsack praised new city leaders for understanding "that the marine industry is important and can provide jobs even now when we're in rough economic times."
With legal problems gone with the tide, she said, the industry can refocus its resources and energy on "what we do best, which is commerce and trade."
Helping facilitate the new compromise was Horacio Stuart Aguirre, who began as a plaintiff in the land-use lawsuits as president of the Durham Park Neighborhood Association but switched gears when the mayor asked him to step in as a moderator for the latest round of talks.
"I call it a global agreement for the river," he said.
Opportunities for marine development were hampered in the past by land speculation, he said. Now's the chance to show "what we can do on the river to create commercial and recreational jobs, to create ancillary employment."
Benefits will translate to the whole region in bringing in maritime business, Mr. Aguirre predicted, which he said can be "clean, vibrant and economically prolific."
Commissioners are to discuss the proposal today.
From there, the city would take it to Tallahassee for an OK.
With that approval in hand, lawmakers could then vote to incorporate the new language into the comprehensive plan officially.
Mr. Aguirre called it an opportunity not to compromise for the sake of settling, but to "bring about a peace that we can believe in."