An out-of-town conference for Miami-Dade County commissioners abruptly suspended a crowded public hearing Wednesday over the fate of abandoned railroad tracks that a developer wants to turn into a ribbon of mixed-use projects and that residents want to be preserved as a 6.2-mile park.
County commissioners, some of whom needed to catch flights for the Tampa conference, agreed to resume the hearing at 10 a.m. Dec. 4.
The tracks, built by Henry Flagler in the 1920s and decommissioned by the Florida East Coast Railway in 2002, have taken center stage in a battle between residents and Flagler’s development company.
The company wants to change the county’s land-use plan to almost double the number of houses and apartments allowed to 2,400 from 1,345. But residents believe the 72-acre corridor, one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts in the county, should become Ludlam Trail, a park strung with community gardens, bike trails and running paths.
“That stretch of land could be to Miami-Dade what Central Park is to New York City,” said South Miami resident Sally Phillips.
For years, the county and others have debated what to do with the corridor that runs from Northwest Seventh Street near Miami International Airport to Southwest 88th Street, between 69th and 70th avenues. Transportation officials have suggested a light rail line or busway. In June 2011, the county’s parks department completed detailed renderings for a linear park.
But creating a park would be costly. Flagler attorney Joesph Goldstein said Wednesday the land has been appraised at about $100 million. Converting it and maintaining a park could jack up the price to $300 million, said Kathryn Moore, Flagler’s community outreach director.
The company, Goldstein said, intends to highlight a trail. New plans submitted to the county last week ensure Flagler would not build more than 1,345 units before a trail — which would take up about 18 acres — is completed, he said.
The plans also call for projects to be clustered in three locations — at Dadeland in the south, Bird Road and Blue Lagoon in the north — where development is already dense, he said. Four other neighborhoods would get the remaining development.
Density would also mirror adjacent property, meaning that larger estate neighborhoods at the south end of the trail would be limited to one house per acre, he said.
“We think the dream of a trail here is as important as anything else,” Goldstein said.
Without the land-use change, the county staff warned that Flagler could try to develop or sell the corridor in pieces. The county needs to ensure “everybody’s following the same game plan,” said county planning division chief Mark Woerner.
But residents have argued that the plans are too vague. And the trail — 100 feet wide on average — could be nothing more than a sidewalk without more guarantees spelled out.
“At 50 feet, 25 percent of that just becomes a sidewalk and nothing more,” said South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, who said county regulations call for at least 35 percent of a project to be set aside for park space.
Park advocates also say money from a new land-conservation trust passed in the November election, and expected to raise $10 billion over the next 20 years for projects around the state, could be used. The corridor sits on a high limestone ridge that was once covered with pine rockland, an endangered forest that has shrunk to two percent of its historic range, mostly in fragmented pieces.
“It connects A.D. Barnes Park to other backyards,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. “So we absolutely would be in favor of returning the majority of it to native habitat, and that’s the only way Amendment 1 dollars will be used.”
If county commissioners agree to move forward at the December hearing, the plans will be sent to the state and other agencies for review, giving residents and others more chances to comment. A final hearing is expected in February.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the trail was 50 feet at its widest.