In an unusual decision prompted by a growing controversy over residential development in Coconut Grove, Miami commissioners on Thursday denied a luxury home builder’s request to erect five houses on a one-acre lot by dividing it into multiple properties.
Commissioners voted unanimously to reject Palmcorp Development Group’s application to divvy a 50,000-square-foot parcel on the corner of Battersea Road and Ingraham Highway into separate lots. Such “replat and subdivision” applications are typically approved without a second glance.
But complaints surfaced recently that Palmcorp is among a group of developers the city has allowed to skirt the law by squeezing multiple homes onto large Coconut Grove lots where just one house formerly stood. Neighbors who live in the South Grove say a special zoning overlay intended to protect the lush character of their neighborhood requires anyone dividing a lot to seek a special, restrictive permit called a warrant that can also be appealed.
But Palmcorp avoided that process after turning to Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez, who is now fighting allegations by Commissioner Ken Russell that she exerted improper influence by helping the developer avoid a requirement to apply for a warrant. On Thursday, commissioners set a special Sept. 29 meeting to discuss Russell’s allegations, which Méndez and Palmcorp strongly deny.
Commissioners also told Palmcorp they would not grant its request for a replat following revelations by Russell that the city might have mistakenly allowed more than a dozen such lot-splitting projects to move forward in the Grove without seeking the proper permits as a result of oversight or a legal loophole.
We’re making mistakes and the results are affecting our community. Commissioner Ken Russell
“We’re making mistakes and the results are affecting our community,” said Russell, who lives in the South Grove just a few blocks from the property.
Thursday’s vote would seem to be a warning to home builders in Coconut Grove, where some neighbors are asking for a moratorium on lot-splitting. It is also a setback for Palmcorp, which according to property records purchased its property through Battersea Woods LLC in 2013 for $3.2 million. The developer has already cleared the property and constructed two homes on the west end of the site after securing building permits by signing a “hold harmless” agreement, according to the city.
Palmcorp attorney Paul Figg told commissioners that his clients have spent years going through all the proper channels to legally and responsibly build their project. He said they’ve now become the victims of “substantial” misrepresentations by Russell and the press.
“They are caught up in a political issue. This is not right,” he said. “If that knowledge does not change your vote then this is pure political theater.”
We need to have some finality on this issue to move forward. Commissioner Francis Suarez
Russell said he’s working with zoning administrator Devin Cejas to identify residential development that might have been approved without the proper warrants, although he said nothing can be done about half of the 13 projects they’ve identified so far. As for Méndez, Russell backed off a request to have an independent attorney look into her actions after taking some heat himself the last two weeks, but commissioners will still meet in one week to discuss his allegations.
“We need to have some finality on this issue to move forward,” Commissioner Francis Suarez said.