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Neighbors of Coconut Grove trolley garage sue Miami City Hall

Neighbors of a trolley-bus garage now under construction in the West Grove sued the city of Miami on Thursday, asking a judge to stop the project and declare part of the city’s ambitious Miami 21 zoning code unconstitutional.

Three homeowners and a church, all adjacent to the garage in the 3300 block of Douglas Road, claim in the suit that the city violated its own rules by allowing what they say is an industrial, not commercial, use at the site. Furthermore, they argue new notification requirements stipulated under Miami 21, the zoning code adopted in 2009 after four years of wrangling and designed to tame haphazard development in the city, violate state and federal constitutional guarantees for proper notice.

In general, the courts have held that people have a right to advance notice and the chance to be heard before the government makes decisions affecting their individual rights.

“When you’re doing something, you have to provide notice, basically to allow people in the community to come out and speak their piece,” said attorney Lowell Kuvin, who is representing the group along with attorney Philip Freidin. “Miami 21 doesn’t do that.”

Residents have been trying to stop the garage since March, when its developer, Astor Development, first approached two neighborhood associations with plans. The garage is part of a land swap with the city of Coral Gables, so Astor can build a luxury, mixed-use apartment building on the site of the Gables’ current garage on Le Jeune Road. Coral Gables approved the 10-story building in August.

Residents first asked the developer to include retail space or a trolley stop that would benefit the neighborhood. But when Coral Gables refused, two adjacent homeowner associations passed resolutions opposing it.

Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff then tried to win support by going to other community groups, brokering a deal in which the developer agreed to donate $200,000 to improve fields at Armbrister Park. In the months since, more groups, including the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance and Miami Neighborhoods United, which represents 21 neighborhoods in the city, joined the opposition.

Both Coral Gables and Miami city officials have said residents received proper notification of the project and failed to appeal.

But residents have said the fee for appealing, at least $1,500, was too expensive. And in the lawsuit, they argue it is also unconstitutional. Miami 21 requires notice of an application for a warrant --- the process by which Astor gained permission for the garage --- but no written notice of its approval, only an Internet posting. In addition, it allows for only 15 days to appeal, which the neighbors say is unreasonable.

“Any code that says you don’t have to put notice on the property itself” is unconstitutional, Kuvin said. “This is just one of the next 100 lawsuits that are going to happen because of that.”

The residents also say that because the garage will be operated by the city of Coral Gables, it qualifies as a government-operated maintenance facility, something Miami 21 clearly defines as an industrial use not allowed in the corridor along Douglas Road. In addition, the city’s comprehensive land-use plan calls for the area to have restricted commercial use, which does not include repair shops or garages.

The garage, surrounded by an eight-foot wall, would be open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. In addition to storing the Gables’ trolleys overnight, it will include space for mechanics to perform minor repairs and warm up the trolleys in the morning.

Astor’s attorney, Mario J. Garcia-Serra, said Thursday he had not seen the lawsuit.

“That being said,” he said in an email, “it is unfortunate that the plaintiffs have taken this route considering the land in question was zoned for this use, all adjacent property owners and homeowner associations were properly notified of the initial zoning application, the City has issued a building permit, and construction has commenced. The appropriate time to raise concerns would have been during the appeal period for the zoning approval, however no appeals were filed with the City.”

Attorneys for the city of Miami did not respond to a request for comment.