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In Miami’s Belle Meade, much ado about a fence

The residents of Belle Meade wanted to keep intruders out of their tiny northeast Miami neighborhood. So two years ago, they drew up plans for a fence and asked city officials for a permit.

The city deferred to the county, which promptly said no, citing various laws and regulations.

But in an intriguing turn of events, the Miami City Commission recently decided that the county has no say in the matter, and voted to allow the Belle Meade fence anyway.

The residents are bemused.

“To us, this is a simple thing,” said Frank Rollason, a former assistant city manager who sits on the board of the Belle Meade Homeowners Association. “We want the fence.”

Belle Meade spans the five blocks from Northeast 72nd to 77th terraces. It is bounded by Biscayne Boulevard to the west and Biscayne Bay to the east.

Access to the neighborhood is already restricted. To enter the community of eclectic single-family homes, residents and visitors in vehicles must pass through a guard gate at Northeast 76th Street and Sixth Court. All other points of entry are blocked by landscaped traffic barriers.

Pedestrians, however, can come and go as they please.

That’s just the issue residents have raised.

Two years ago, Belle Meade residents gathered at a community meeting to discuss a spike in the number of burglaries and car break-ins. The same day, robbers broke into a Belle Meade residence and held the homeowner at gunpoint.

It didn’t take community activists long to draw up plans to build a six-foot fence along Northeast Sixth Court. They estimated the project would cost $15,000, which they planned to cover with private donations. The estimated cost has since risen.

“The draw of the fence was twofold,” Rollason said. “It closed in Sixth Court, and was not an ongoing expense.”

That November, Rollason and several other homeowners circulated a petition to enclose the community. Supporters included Dave Kerkhof, a retired Miami-Dade police officer who has lived in Belle Meade since he was a kid.

Kerkhof said his home on Northeast 75th Street has been broken into, and thieves have also stolen lawn-care products from his shed.

“Criminals are going to take the path of least resistance,” Kerkhof said. “If they see a fence, they may just turn around and go elsewhere.”

But some neighbors voiced opposition, including Felipe Azenha, who blogs at

Azenha said fencing in the neighborhood would prompt other neighborhoods to build fences, destroying the sense of community on Miami’s Upper East Side. Plus, he said, a fence wouldn’t be all that effective.

“If we don’t clean up Biscayne Boulevard, the fence isn’t going to do very much,” he said.

All told, 92 percent of the 300 or so residents who participated in the petition drive signed up in favor of the fence plan, Rollason said. He delivered the document to the Miami Public Works Department.

At first, city officials seemed keen on getting the project underway. Miami City Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff even offered to pay for the fence using bond money stashed away for his district. The cost estimate has since risen to $50,000.

But City Attorney Julie Bru said the city needed to get permission from Miami-Dade County before moving forward, pointing out that the county has jurisdiction over permanent street closures.

Two months later, Assistant County Attorney Jorge Martinez-Esteve opined that the fence should not be allowed.

His rationale, according to a December 2010 legal opinion: Street closures “must always allow for the free through movement of all pedestrians, including wheelchair users and bicyclists.”

The existing traffic barricades are bordered by sidewalks, which allow for pedestrian access.

Belle Meade residents reconvened, this time with some city and county officials, and decided a fence with unlocked swinging gates would be OK. In that case, they reasoned, the fence would not be considered a permanent closure and would not require county approval.

Bru, the city attorney, has yet to be persuaded.

In a second opinion penned in April, she reiterated her earlier position, writing: “It is our recommendation that the city obtain county approval prior to expending any funds in connection with the fence project.”

Albert Sosa, the city’s capital improvements director, also expressed some reservations.

“I would be hesitant to proceed with the work knowing that the county has already told us ‘don’t do it,’ ” he said at a commission meeting.

The City Commission, however, has sided with Belle Meade.

In late April, commissioners said a fence with swinging gates did not qualify as permanent, and was thus covered by city policy, not county policy. They gave public works the go-ahead to start construction.

“This commission is entitled to set the law on what a closure is,” Sarnoff said. “We can decide this is not a closure and proceed forward.”

Some city commissioners expressed concern that the county might try to remove the fence.

Commission Chairman Francis Suarez drew comparisons to the 10-foot wall built around Miami’s Coral Gate neighborhood in 2010. The county ordered the city to remove part of the wall.

“We basically told them that we weren’t going to do what they wanted us to do, and they better come up with a way to legalize what we’ve already done,” Suarez said at a recent commission meeting.

In a statement to The Miami Herald, county officials said they had “no plans to take any further action on this issue.”

But they maintain that the fence is illegal — and that the city must follow laws and guidelines that govern its roadways.

“The [county] public works and waste management department has advised the City of Miami in writing that construction of a fence in the Belle Meade community on public right-of-way which impedes pedestrian travel is not in compliance with local, state and federal regulations which govern pedestrian access and circulation along roadways,” county officials wrote.

For now, the fence will remain a topic of discussion among the skeptical patrons at Jimmy’s East-Side Diner, a local gathering spot.

“This fence has taken longer than the Marlins Stadium,” Rollason pointed out on a recent morning. “We’re still here waiting.”