A contentious and consequential battle over the future of historic preservation in Bay Harbor Islands and Surfside has now generated a blistering and unusual face-off between a Miami-Dade commissioner and a veteran preservationist, complete with mocking YouTube video and dueling complaints of ethical violations.
In one corner: Powerful Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes Bay Harbor and Surfside, and who has aggressively led a charge against historic designation of buildings in either town.
In the other: Miami Beach activist and hotelier Mitch Novick, the assertive volunteer chairman of the county’s historic preservation board, who has presided over a push to save endangered Miami Modern and Art Deco buildings in both towns over the vocal objections of Heyman, town leaders and some residents.
Heyman, who had previously launched unusually public broadsides against the county’s historic preservation office for moving to protect significant buildings in both towns, took the first swing. She filed a confidential complaint with the county’s Inspector General’s office, claiming a possible conflict of interest on Novick’s part because he mentioned in an open hearing that he’s made a living restoring historic buildings in Bay Harbor and other places. Then she publicly broadcast her complaint in the middle of an appeal hearing on a historic designation in Bay Harbor that Novick supported.
Novick — who says he has no conflicts because he doesn’t own property in areas his board regulates — then swung back hard. He filed his own complaint with Inspector General Mary Cagle, claiming it’s Heyman who’s acted improperly. According to Novick, Heyman failed to disclose that she’s been carrying water in her preservation fight for developer Chateau Group, a campaign contributor that was contesting historic designation of its property in Surfside.
Novick didn’t stop there. He posted a video to YouTube — dubbing the commissioner “Surfside Sally” — that pokes fun at Heyman’s rambling and, according to Novick, “comically” uninformed anti-preservation tirades during a pair of public meetings.
The video also prominently features an attorney and registered lobbyist for Chateau Group, Miami litigator Leoncio de la Peña, who also spoke at those meetings, including getting up to criticize preservation procedures during a quasi-judicial appeal before the county commission of a separate Surfside designation in which neither De la Peña or Chateau Group was involved.
Novick’s video suggests that Heyman failed to tell her commission colleagues — at least one of whom questioned why De La Peña was there after he told them he did not represent anyone — that the attorney was not a disinterested party but a lobbyist for a developer contesting preservation of a nearby property.
Novick then emailed a link to the video along with a letter detailing his allegations to Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and all 13 county commissioners, including Heyman, and reiterated his complaints in a letter published last week in the Daily Business Review. Novick’s missives don’t stint words: He describes Heyman and De la Peña’s public remarks as “plagued with ignorance, misrepresentations and falsehoods” and accuses the commissioner of “mean-spirited attacks on the Historic Preservation staff and board.” He also contends Heyman “slandered” him and dismisses her claims as “distorted and inaccurate.”
Heyman declined to comment in detail for this story because she had not seen the video or Novick’s letters and was unaware of his complaint against her with the IG.
“I haven’t seen any of it, to tell you the truth,” Heyman said, adding that she had passed on to the IG’s office complaints about Novick she received from constituents. “Here’s the bottom line: The issue of historic preservation is very important. It needs to be vetted out. I don’t have anything to say other than I did forward constitutents’ concerns and communications to her office.”
Heyman said she did so on the advice of the county attorney, who told her she can’t have direct contact with anyone on the preservation board because the commission reviews its decisions as an appellate body in quasi-judicial proceedings.
Cagle confirmed receiving Heyman’s complaint only because the commissioner had already gone public, and said no investigation has been opened.
“We said we would take a preliminary look,” Cagle said, declining further comment because of confidentiality rules.
De la Peña called Novick’s video and letters “surreal” and said he and his client, Chateau principal Manuel Grosskopf, did nothing improper.
He said he testified at the unrelated Surfside appeal because he happened to be in the commission chambers on another matter and wanted to help the appellant. The commission overturned the board’s historic designation of the small Surfside condo on a motion by Heyman.
By the date of that hearing, De La Peña noted, Chateau Group had acceded to historic designation of its Surfside property in a compromise with county preservation chief Kathleen Kauffman. Some time after the designation, De la Peña said, Chateau Group dropped its development plans and sold the property, which sits on the other side of Collins Avenue from the condo that was the subject of the appeal hearing. The developer currently has no projects involving designated or potentially historic properties, he said.
“There is no conflict,” De la Peña said. “Mr. Novick has got a fight with Sally Heyman, and she’s a tough cookie. But we don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s unfortunate Mr. Novick choose to defend himself using spurious, ad hominem attacks on other people.”
The stakes in the confrontation are potentially significant. It comes amid a fierce political and legal pushback against preservation in Surfside, Bay Harbor Islands and neighboring Bal Harbour, led in part by Heyman, after preservationists scored a string of unexpected victories before the county board. Two of those victories have been reversed on appeal by the commission with key support by Heyman, including the Surfside case De La Peña spoke on, raising questions about the county’s continuing ability to protect significant historic structures and neighborhoods.
Novick said in an interview that he was defending not only himself, but also fellow board members, Kauffman and her two-person staff from what he called “bullying and intimidation” from Heyman as well as developers and municipal officials in Surfside and Bay Harbor Islands. Kauffman declined to comment.
Referring to Heyman, Novick said, “I’m doing my job probably a little too well for her liking.”
One longtime board member, historian Paul George, who is Heyman’s appointee, defended Novick, calling his leadership “strong” and knowledgeable, but added: “I feel he needs to be more diplomatic. He needs to understand that Sally is under siege from developers.”
Novick, who runs the Sherbrooke Hotel on South Beach, developed a reputation as an outspoken advocate during the years he served on Miami Beach’s preservation board, where he also sat as chairman. In 2008 he was appointed to the county board, which has jurisdiction over unincorporated areas and municipalities without their own preservation programs, by Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro.
Things heated up when Kauffman and the board began moving last year to restart a long-stalled effort to identify and protect architecturally and historically significant buildings amid an intense wave of condo redevelopment in Surfside and nearby Bay Harbor, on whose East Island some preservationists had been trying for years to win designation for what’s widely regarded as a treasure trove of MiMo buildings.
At the behest of some individual condo and co-op owners, the board overwhelmingy approved designation of four buildings in a series of contentious hearings, including the Cheateau Group property in Surfside and the first building ever designated as historic in Bay Harbor, and instructed Kauffman to look at extending protection to other MiMo structures in the town. But after opposing owners appealed, contending that preservation would unfairly impair their ability to sell the buildings to developers, the county commission overturned the Bay Harbor Continental designation and one Surfside designation.
Opponents of the Contintental designation began targeting Novick. They circulated as evidence of a conflict of interest a video clip from a county commission hearing in which Novick, testifying against amendments to the county preservation code that Heyman proposed unsuccessfully, mentioned his background in renovating historic buildings. They offered no further evidence. Heyman forwarded that clip to the IG’s office.
Members of the Miami-Dade and municipal preservation boards are often engaged in renovations as a business or avocation, and must disclose if they have an interest in a property under review. But professional engagement in preservation generally is not grounds for recusal.
About the claim that he has a conflict of interest, Novick said he sold his Bay Harbor building in 2006, two years before he joined the county board, and owns property only in Miami Beach, which is not subject to its jurisdiction. He and his attorney, Kent Harrison Robbins, said deputy IG Felix Jimenez told them after an interview that he saw no conflict.
“After all the years of experience he has, he has never had anything questioned about his integrity until this,” Robbins said of his client. “Never.”