The folks in unincorporated Northeast Miami-Dade County who were suffering a little Aventura envy were delivered a ray of hope two weeks ago, when county voters elected to make it easier to seek cityhood.
Earlier this year, county commissioners lifted a five-year moratorium on incorporation. Now, after a lengthy petition process and a local vote, Northeast Miami-Dade and its 18,000 residents — most in 3.3 miles of gated communities filled with lakes, homes, condos and a few decent-sized business districts — could become the city of Highland Oaks by the end of 2013.
“The county should be concentrating on the bigger regional assets,” said attorney and incorporation leader Lenny Feldman , stating a common argument used by incorporation advocates.
On Nov. 6 voters agreed to make the incorporation process easier, ending a frustrating seven-year roadblock to cityhood for several neighborhoods in the county. Voters said yes to a referendum question allowing the creation of a municipality if a group gives notice to the county clerk, delivers a charter within 90 days, and collects 20 percent of the signatures of residents in the area. In the past, 25 percent were needed.
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At that point, the County Commission is forced to vote, and can’t shelve the plan indefinitely as it had done in the past, including for two years before the moratorium was formalized. If the referendum passes, a new city is required to maintain county fire, library and garbage services, and must contract with Miami-Dade police for a minimum of three years even if it wishes to create its own force.
As the curtain lifted on incorporation, the county determined three regions fighting for cityhood when the doors closed seven years ago were far ahead of the others. Along with Northeast Dade, Fountainbleau and North Central Dade had created acceptable Municipal Advisory Committees, or MACs, created budgets and gathered enough census information for county staff to contact them immediately after the Nov. 6 vote.
“Those three made it out of the Planning Advisory Board, the first step in the legislative process,” said Jorge Fernandez, the county’s Office of Management and Budget coordinator.
The boot-shaped region of Northeast Miami-Dade, bordered to the west by Interstate 95, on the east by the train tracks adjacent to Biscayne Boulevard, on the north by the county line and on the south roughly by Miami Gardens Drive, has emerged from its hibernation far ahead of the other two entities.
Neighborhood leaders, most members of local homeowner associations, have chosen a slightly different route to becoming a city than through a petition drive.
They’re reconvening the MAC, which can serve as an alternate to a petition. After creating a budget and breaking down the region’s social and economic characteristics, it needs approval of the county’s Planning Advisory Board, then of county commissioners, before creating a charter and going to referendum.
Northeast Dade’s arguments for incorporation are common: The need for better policing, nicer parks, and local decisions on issues including street signs, fences and playgrounds.
A few years ago the area was hit by a spate of robberies and home invasions. The response was to build fences along its northern border. Now there are fences built on top of rotting fences, running almost from its east to west border. The eyesores have not been a high priority for County Commissioner Sally Heyman, though they might be for leaders of a smaller city.
Heyman has been helpful to the incorporation attempt.
“I’ve asked my office to provide them with all the information they need,” she said.
The new city’s budget would likely be between $9 million and $10 million. Northeast Dade has emerged from the recession a little healthier than it was seven years ago, Feldman said, as property values stabilized, population increased by 1,500, and its contribution to the unincorporated Miami-Dade property tax known as UMSA has increased to $1.3 million a year.
That means Northeast Dade is considered a donor community because it pays more in taxes than it receives in services, Feldman said.
“That’s money that would come back to our area,” Feldman said.
Not everyone in the neighborhood is gung ho about the incorporation movement. Longtime Sky Lake resident Elicia Rook said it’s just a bunch of homeowner association members looking for power and money.
“You mean those people are back again?’’ she asked. “They just want to make a city so their pensions are on our backs. We have great police and garbage pickup. What else do we need?’’
Bari Schanerman, a business consultant who has spent a decade fighting for neighborhood independence, toured rundown parks near her home last week and said many residents simply cross the tracks to the east and use Aventura’s facilities. The parks there are bigger, brighter, have more trees and walking trails. Police are visible. She also said she’s impressed with the growth of Miami Gardens to the west.
“I guess I’ve watched all the cities around us improve,” Schanerman said. The unincorporated area “looks tired, it looks rundown. I don’t know if it would be so obvious except for the cities around us.”
Just before the 2007 moratorium on incorporation, Aventura was asked to look into annexing Northeast Dade.
“It was not financially feasible,” said Aventura City Manager Eric Soroca.
Had the neighborhood been annexed, almost $2 million in yearly utility taxes and franchise fees it now pays to the county would have remained with the county. If Northeast Dade becomes Highland Oaks, it gets to keep that money.
“It’s a shame the moratorium stopped everything,” Schanerman said. “I think it’s time to let the people decide.’’