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Coral Gables residents drive referendum item on pickup truck ordinance

For the first time in Coral Gables’ 86-year history, residents will have a say on whether to scrap the city’s 50-year-old ordinance that has banned pickup trucks from being parked overnight in city driveways.

Proponents on both sides of the issue are worried that the referendum item will be overlooked amid the presidential campaign and a ballot on Tuesday laden with statewide constitutional amendment questions.

Indeed, neither Mayor Jim Cason, who initiated the idea to place the item in the hands of voters, nor City Commissioner Maria Anderson, who fought to change the ordinance and opposed turning it into a referendum, said they have received e-mails from residents concerning the ballot item.

“I’m not surprised, given the fact people are thinking about the presidential election,” said Commissioner Ralph Cabrera, who opposes changing the ordinance but who voted in favor of the referendum. “I would have preferred this on the spring ballot so people could have focused on it.”

Those who prefer the status quo, like former mayors Don Slesnick and Dorothy Thomson, have the law on their side. State courts have upheld the city’s ordinance four times since 1974, most recently in 2011, when the court ruled a municipality has the authority to control its appearance.

As the ordinance stands, Coral Gables residents who own pickup trucks for private, non-commercial use cannot park them overnight in their driveways. The vehicles must be parked inside a garage or outside the city limits. Estimates place the number of pickup trucks in Coral Gables at about 500.

However, the rule has not been enforced since former resident Lowell Kuvin sued the city in 2003 after he was cited for parking his 1993 Ford F-150 truck on a residential street. That case worked its way through the courts for eight years.

Finally, in 2011, with the city victorious, the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear Kuvin’s appeal, upholding the city’s law. The city spent $250,000 on legal fees defending its position, and Kuvin became a lawyer and moved to Miami Beach.

So why are pickup trucks roaring to be heard again?

Last year, Anderson, who is in her final term after a decade on the commission, proposed that the Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Department review the ordinance. She called the ordinance “archaic” and wanted it modified before she leaves office in April.

The Planning and Zoning Board recommended that the rule be modified.

In June, the commission, at the urging of Cason, opted to put the issue before voters in a referendum.

As currently written, residents who violate the pickup truck ordinance would be fined $100 the first night, then $500 the second night if they fail to comply.

Cason said he wanted to put the issue to voters to gauge the public’s mood.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me or anyone who is a political figure to use the bully pulpit on issues for personal taste,” he said.

“We’re not taste czars. Nobody knows what the community thinks about this because there has never been a poll, so let’s take it to the people.”

Voter ennui

The trick now is getting these voices heard over the roar of this year’s election season.

“If this election were being held as a municipal election, I’ve no doubt this would be rejected 2- or 3-1,” said Vincent Damian, president of the Coral Gables Citizens Political Action Committee and an opponent of modifying the ordinance. “Because it’s the very last item, unless you are particularly interested in that item, you won’t go to the end. People who have trucks have a cause for it, and will vote.”

For Damian, 74, the issue goes to the heart of preserving the Gables’ strict regulations, with rules for the colors houses can be painted, the maintenance of front lawns, setbacks and other aesthetic issues.

“There are maybe 300 to 400 people with trucks who purchased them during the moratorium,” he said. “There might also be 400 who want chain-link fences, which we cannot have in Coral Gables. There might be others who want to pave over their lawns because they don’t feel like mowing.

“We feel this is one of the many regulations that have preserved values and our way of life over the years.”

But people are finding the item.

Earlier this week at the Coral Gables Library, a polling place for early voting, Gables residents Frank Halpern, 28, and Bonnie Seipp, 55, made sure to navigate through all the ballot items.

Halpern, who does not drive a pickup, voted to modify the ordinance. He says there isn’t a lot of difference between today’s pickup truck and the popular SUV or Hummer, neither of which are restricted.

“It should be OK to have pickup trucks in the yard — not everyone has a garage. There’s a trend toward SUVs getting smaller, and that’s the same with pickup trucks getting smaller and more fuel-efficient. Pickup trucks are not taking away from the aesthetic,” Halpern said.

Seipp preferred to maintain the ordinance. “Now people have them and it’s subtle, but if you lose the ordinance there will be a lot more,” she said. “It won’t be nice.”

If only . . .

Slesnick, like Anderson, wishes the City Commission had made the decision in June.

“If I had been mayor on the council, I would have made a decision. That’s leadership, that’s what they elect people for,” Slesnick said. “I wrote to the mayor that if you are going to change it after all these years, then put it to a vote. But if the commission felt it shouldn’t be changed, we had fought a lawsuit, we had held on, just keep it that way. Let somebody do a referendum from the grass roots if they want to.”

Resident Ani Victoriano, whose son has a pickup, was prepared to do so, having collected more than 2,000 signatures earlier this year in the hope of persuading the commission to vote to modify the ordinance. Since the five-member commission did not do so, she is still pounding the pavement to promote a change.

“We’ve been doing a lot of phone calls, canvassing door to door, and have been getting a lot of positive feedback from people all over,” Victoriano, 49, said. “So far, I’m very optimistic.”