Coral Gables commissioners on Tuesday tentatively agreed to allow a property owner to split a residential lot into two, a rarity in the City Beautiful.
The property, on the west end of a block fronting onto Maggiore Street between Savona Avenue on the north and Caligula Avenue on the south, a block north of Hardee Road, is 210 by 73 feet. Architect Stetson Glines and his wife, Jane Wooldridge, a Miami Herald editor, applied to split the lot into two building sites, each 73 by 105 feet. The couple contracted to buy the lot from trustee Jack Thompson at an unspecified price, conditional on winning approval to demolish an existing single-family residence and garage structure and build two houses.
One house would be occupied by the couple, who desire to downsize from a nearby home on Hardee Road.
“We are long-time Coral Gables residents and care deeply about the quality of life there,” Wooldridge told the City Commission. “We love our neighborhood and want to stay in it. Stetson and I have spent several months with city staff to create a sensitive, smart master plan congruent with the surrounding neighborhood. The existing house we own is too large for us. We want and need to downsize but to stay in the neighborhood, so we want to build two houses. We will live in one and sell the other. What we create here will be in the best interest of the neighborhood.”
Given how rare lot-split approvals are in a city like Coral Gables, with its strict building and zoning codes — Mayor Jim Cason could think of only one such approval in the last couple years — the approval was a bit of a surprise.
The Planning and Zoning Board at their October meeting made no recommendation on the conditional use review given that the five-member board split with a two in favor and three against vote. An affirmative vote of four members is necessary for the adoption of any motion.
But Glines and Wooldridge managed to get at least 50 neighbors to sign off on the proposed construction, with only one resident, Charles Girtman, speaking against the split.
“If you approve this lot-split I feel certain there are at least five more waiting in line with very similar projects,” Girtman said. “Think of the big picture and how much splitting do we want to allow.”
But other neighbors felt that the Glines-Wooldridge plan fit in with the aesthetic of the neighborhood, which currently is dotted with homes in the 3,000-square-foot range the couple wish to build.
“We all think with this property improvement, our neighborhood will be enhanced,” resident Magali Sibesz told the City Commission.
“I’ve lived in Coral Gables over 50 years and the scalability of this plan is a perfect fit with the surrounding neighborhood. I appreciate that Coral Gables wants to maintain its standards, but this is in the best interest of Coral Gables,” said resident Stephanie Schmidt.
Cason said the overwhelming support was unusual for such a request. “I’ve never seen this many people come out in favor of something like this.”
The vote in favor was 4-1 with Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk dissenting.
“I’m a purist and believe in the preservation of our neighborhoods,” he said. The tough standards for lot-splitting in the city exist, he says, to keep developers from coming in “and taking down these ’20s and ’50s houses sitting on 10,000-square-foot lots and building two to three residences. This is a quality of life issue for me.”
The house that now sits on the lot would be torn down whether the lot is split or not as the home is damaged beyond repair, attorney Laura Russo said in her argument for Glines-Wooldridge. The couple also agreed to build the new homes with frontage facing Maggiore Street, in keeping with the majority of the homes in that neighborhood.
The process still must go through a second reading in December, along with a re-platting of the property as required by the zoning code. The new owners would also have to present a detailed landscaping plan, subject to approval of the directors of the city’s Public Service Division and the Planning and Zoning Division.
In other business, the commission unanimously agreed to increase the members of the pension board from nine to 13. The city manager and commission set pension benefits via negotiations with employee unions, but the pension board makes sure the pension program is financially sound.
The new board members would be the city’s finance director, the human resources director and two others to be appointed by City Manager Pat Salerno, subject to approval by the City Commission.
Now, labor gets four seats, and the five commission members appoint one apiece.
The fire and police union’s representatives, Michael Chickillo and John Baublitz, respectively, opposed the changes.
“We feel that he’s given too much power,” Chickillo said of Salerno. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to the city and we don’t feel that’s the right makeup.”
Salerno countered that it is not unusual for key staff members to serve on a pension board.
The commission agreed.
“The pension board is the most important board, no doubt about it,” said Cason, arguing that an expert in finance would make sense on board. “We need to have the best minds, the most knowledgeable people on the board.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.