Coconut Grove

Coconut Grove

Residents of historic West Grove say they were intentionally misled over trolley garage issue

Miami residents battling a trolley garage in their neighborhood have asked an appeal court to hear their case, arguing the city and a developer pulled a classic “bait and switch” after advertising the project.

In their appeal to the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami Tuesday, west Coconut Grove residents also say city procedures for fighting decisions are fundamentally flawed.

“As if that weren’t prohibitive enough, in this case the Notice of Approval was posted ... for the wrong year,” wrote Miami attorney Joel Perwin, who is representing the residents. “The entire scenario was not simply unfair; it was Kafkaesque — a classic Catch-22.”

Nearly two years ago, Miami signed off on the 12-bay garage in the 3300 block of Douglas Road after Coral Gables and developer Henry Torres struck a deal. Torres agreed to find land and build a new garage for Coral Gables popular trolleys if he could have land where the city’s garage now sits, next to swanky Merrick Park. He wants to build a 10-story luxury condominium project.

Residents in the historic, predominantly black neighborhood opposed it, but did not follow the city’s steps for filing an appeal because of confusing instructions, they said.

Under the city’s revamped Miami 21 zoning code, created to make Miami a more livable city, certain uses could be approved by warrant — without a public hearing. With a warrant, nearby property owners are told when an application is submitted, but must check on the city’s website to find out when it is approved. Then, if they object, they have 15 days to appeal.

When construction of the garage began in December 2012, residents began staging protests, circulating petitions and filed a lawsuit.

They argue the garage is an industrial use that is not only illegal under the code, but harmful to the historic neighborhood founded in the 1880s by Bahamian immigrants, who helped build Miami and neighboring Coral Gables. Many descendants of those original immigrants still live in the bungalows and shotgun houses that dot the neighborhood.

Over the years, they have struggled to improve the working-class neighborhood without losing its character and Caribbean roots.

But in August, a local judge said he could not even consider the zoning dispute because residents had failed to exhaust the city’s “administrative” remedies.

Perwin appealed to the Third DCA, arguing that residents were intentionally misled. The first notice they received on May 16, 2011 described the garage as a maintenance garage. The second notice, on July 11, 2011, omitted the word maintenance. In between the first and second notices, as the Herald reported in September, the city’s project manager emailed the city planning director informing him that the garage “appears not to be an allowable use” and recommended that it be stopped.

In addition to changing the description, the city incorrectly posted its approval in a 2011 log on its website, not the 2012 log where residents would have checked, had they followed the city’s rules, Perwin said.

Furthermore, residents’ notification letters did not explain the approval process, the website and how to access it. The letters also did not address an entirely different set of rules — the Neighborhood Conservation Districts — created to protect them and offered a more specific definition of what can be built in the neighborhood, he explained.

“There are tons of rules that deal with conserving the character of a neighborhood and nobody told us anything,” Perwin said. “These residents are not lawyers and under the constitution of the United States and Florida, they are not required to go research the law. The due process they are entitled to places the burden on the government to inform them of their rights. And nobody did. Not only were they not informed, they were affirmatively misled.”

City attorney John Greco said the city does not comment on pending litigation and Torres’ attorney, Mario Garcia-Serra, could not be reached.

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