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Grove Isle condo owners upset about plans for fourth tower

A developer’s plans to replace the Grove Isle Hotel and Spa with a fourth 18-story tower has neighbors steaming at the thought of noisy construction and a 180-foot-tall building blocking their views of Biscayne Bay.

Anger erupted at a December meeting of the Grove Isle condominium association, where developers presented their plans for the seven acres on the north end of the isle, which is where the hotel stands now. The association has since hired a lawyer, and now the plans for a new 65-unit condominium tower with a private club, spa and tennis facility are tied up in Miami’s zoning department.

“We are still reviewing the issue,” said Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez.

Meanwhile, some residents have formed the Preserve Grove Isle Committee to oppose the tower. In response, the developer started its own website to state its case for a new tower with an improved club and spa that would completely privatize the island.

The faces and names may be different, but the fighting over how to develop Grove Isle isn’t new.

The future of the northern tip of the small island just off Coconut Grove hinges on the validity of a decades-old agreement between the city of Miami and previous landowners. In the 1970s, the city sued developers who wanted to build the three 18-story towers that currently stand on Grove Isle, home to about 500 luxury condos valued in the millions.

Under the 1977 agreement that adheres to a now-repealed zoning ordinance, the developer could build up to four towers 18 stories high with a maximum of 575 units. But only three towers were built at the time.

Grove Isle Associates bought the property last spring and wants to invoke the 1977 settlement to move its plan for a 65-unit tower forward. The company’s development director is longtime Miami developer Eduardo Avila, who has had projects in Brickell, Key Biscayne and downtown Coral Gables.

In a letter to Miami’s planning department in January 2013, the company’s attorney, Lucia Dougherty, of law firm Greenberg Traurig, argued that the 1977 agreement still stands.

The city’s response came from then-deputy city attorney Maria Chiaro, who is now in private practice in Naples. She agreed with Grove Isle Associates.

“Legally I find that there exists continuing applicability of the covenant and settlement agreement, that the rights therein are vested and that the parties’ ongoing obligation pursuant to them entitles the construction of an 18-story residential tower on Grove Isle and other construction within certain constraints,” she wrote.

In early February of this year, the Grove Isle homeowners association had their attorney send a nine-page legal analysis that contradicts the developer’s stance. In it, attorney Tony Recio, of the Weiss Serota firm, wrote that the window for developing a fourth tower legally closed after building permits were pulled to construct the existing three towers.

“Accordingly, the vested rights provided in the settlement agreement were exercised through the building permits and there remain no additional vested rights,” he wrote. “Any further development of Grove Isle must necessarily comply with all aspects of current regulations.”

Recio contends the developer does have the right to develop — but the company must follow the current zoning code known as Miami 21, which limits buildings to five-story heights.

On Friday, Avila met an executive committee of the condo association’s board of directors to show them what his plans would look like under strict guidelines.

“If I can’t go up, I have to go horizontal,” he told the Miami Herald afterward.

Between two and four five-story buildings would be built along the northern edge of the island, curving with the shoreline and eliminating space for the club, spa and tennis courts.

Avila said he understands some residents’ concerns about their views, but he said the single tower would have the least impact on the the fewest people. The top five floors of the northernmost existing tower would lose their unobstructed views, but renderings from architect firm RTKL show sight lines would be wider for residents on lower floors because of the new tower’s curved shape.

After a full association board meeting Friday evening where all members got to see the alternatives, member Tim Moore said the association is still reviewing its rights on the island.

“In both cases, it’s going to obstruct our view and radically change the ambience of the island,” he said. “We’re still deciding which is the worst of two evils.”

Moore lives on the 16th floor of the third tower, which would have its view of the bay and the downtown Miami skyline blocked under the developer’s plan.

Edgar Lewis, board president, said the association will continue to have meetings and look at its options.

Follow @joeflech on Twitter.

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