Miami-Dade commissioners to consider FIU-expansion ballot question

08/27/2014 7:09 PM

08/28/2014 11:43 AM

Miami-Dade County has already endorsed the expansion of Florida International University onto the Tamiami Park fairgrounds. Now it wants the political backing of a far more powerful group: county voters.

Before continuing tricky discussions with the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition, which doesn’t want to relocate and would not be required to pay for a potential move, the county plans to ask the electorate if it supports FIU’s proposal in the first place.

County commissioners are scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to put a question on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. The Miami-Dade elections department has said next week is the deadline for county charter amendments.

“I’m hoping that we have a serious discussion and put something in motion that clears the way for what I’ve said in many occasions is a win for our community,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the legislation’s sponsor.

Support at the polls to turn over 64 county-owned park acres to FIU could give Miami-Dade and FIU more leverage over fair organizers, who oppose holding a popular vote before new fairgrounds — or relocation funds — are identified. County administrators want to keep looking for a suitable alternative for at least another six months.

“This rush to referendum is premature,” said Robert Hohenstein, president and chief executive of the nonprofit that runs the fair. “There are many more unanswered questions about this process.”

Miami-Dade’s charter requires park land to be used for park purposes unless they are granted an exception. The proposed amendment would extend the exception to FIU.

The fair has been on the park grounds at Coral Way and Southwest 107th Avenue for 43 years. It is separate from ballfields and other amenities that make up Tamiami Park.

A long-term lease between the county and the fair puts Miami-Dade on the hook to find another expo site and pay for the move if it wants to break the agreement, which runs through 2040 with extensions until 2085. A county consultant concluded last year that relocation costs could amount to up to $80 million in construction and another $150 million in road and service improvements.

Miami-Dade says it doesn’t have funds available, so the ballot question would also require that no county dollars be used for FIU’s expansion or the youth fair’s relocation. The university says it needs local support to campaign for more state funding, after receiving $10 million from the Florida Legislature this year.

“We thought it was appropriate to hear first from the people,” said Richard Perez, a partner at the Holland & Knight law firm who is representing the university. “If there is no support, why go through an exercise we fully recognize is going to be very time consuming and require a lot of work?”

FIU wants to build $900 million in new student housing, parking and research and academic facilities. The university initially talked about expanding onto the full 86 fairground acres on Tamiami Park, but has since revised its proposal down to 64 acres. That would leave existing fairgrounds buildings in place for summer camps, youth athletics and a hurricane shelter.

As with most charter amendments, which are restricted in how many words they may have, the ballot question wouldn’t lay out all of the details the county and the university discussed.

The two sides have drafted a separate document, known as a memorandum of understanding and also on Wednesday’s commission agenda, outlining that FIU would pay Miami-Dade $20 million for Tamiami Park upgrades as part of the deal — and lease or convey a 320-acre property known as the Bird Drive Basin.

That parcel, located east of Krome Avenue and north of Tamiami Trail, contains wetlands that environmentalists would like to leave untouched. It’s also outside the Urban Development Boundary, which Mayor Carlos Gimenez has said he is uninterested in expanding.

Though Bovo and other commissioners have suggested the site as a new home for the fair, the county and FIU insist that’s not why they’re including the property as part of the deal. Instead, they say the land is intended to compensate Miami-Dade for the loss of Tamiami Park acreage by providing more green space — for a “passive park” — elsewhere.

“We want to make sure that our inventory of park property is protected and improved,” said Michael Spring, a senior Gimenez adviser. “Our intention is clearly to benefit the parks department.”

Nothing in the agreement would require that the parcel remain undeveloped, though commissioners would have to vote to allow any construction, given its location outside the UDB.

Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society in Miami, noted that when the state deeded the wetlands parcel to FIU, it required that the university, within a year, develop a management plan for passive recreation uses.

“I would want the county to have to do the same thing,” she said.

All sides are expected to make their cases at Wednesday’s commission meeting. If the board gives its OK to the ballot question, the university is preparing to launch a political campaign.

In June, supporters formed a political action committee, Friends of Higher Education, that has up to now raised $283,500 — mostly from healthcare, real-estate and construction interests.

The committee has also spent nearly $185,000, much of it on polling and legal and political consulting with some well-known local operatives, including Freddy Balsera, Jorge Luis Lopez and Steve Marin.

A Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll conducted in June found that respondents opposed FIU’s expansion by 50-43 percent.

Proposed ballot question

“The Dade County youth fair site at Tamiami Park is exempt from the public park purposes use restrictions and construction limitations in Article 7 of the charter. Shall the charter be amended to:

• Extend this exemption to Florida International University (FIU) for its expansion onto up to 64 acres of such site upon relocation of the youth fair; and

• Provide that no county funds be used for FIU’s expansion and the youth fair’s required relocation?”

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