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Pinecrest seeks way to pay for botanical jewel

The village of Pinecrest has a historic 22-acre botanical wonderland with more than 1,000 species of plants, a water park for kids, a library, a community center, venues for weddings and parties, a weekly farmer’s market — and a financial headache.

Pinecrest Gardens is a rare amenity for a village of just 18,000 people and it takes a toll on the taxpayers. Last year, the gardens had expenses of $1.6 million but revenues of just $404,000. That has village leaders looking to increase income.

The Village Council has been discussing a plan to lease space in the gardens to a restaurant and catering service. But some neighbors are objecting — saying the plan would bring noise and drunk drivers, and that it would break a promise the Village Council made to limit liquor sales on the site.

Nevertheless, the council seems to be moving forward with its plans. Mayor Cindy Lerner said a 2010 survey found that 70 percent were in support of having a restaurant.

“I think the council has been pretty united in the desire to bring this restaurant forward, and we have always tried to have open dialogue with the neighbors,” Lerner said. “I think we all felt really shocked and confused but why this angry mob came to the meeting in November. They really caught us by surprise.”

The gardens used to be Parrot Jungle, a roadside attraction that opened in 1936. Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister and lover of birds, visited in the 1940s. Much of the campus is on the National Register of Historic Places.

As the number of tourists who traveled to the park dwindled during the 1980s and ‘90s, the business changed. New owners bought Parrot Jungle in 1988 and they proposed a $4 million expansion that included a banquet hall. But the plan ruffled some feathers.

Over the years, a group of residents waged several legal battles. Michael Guilford, who bought his Pinecrest home next to the garden in 1992, said the noise was sometimes louder than his television and at times kept his children up at night. In 1993, he and an angry crowd went to County Hall to complain.

“The room couldn’t contain us all. We spilled out into the hallway, and person after person came up and talked about how this had negatively affected their quality of life,” Guilford said. “I was sure it was over.”

When the village acquired the property in 2002, the council made some promises: No nighttime parties or alcohol, except for up to four parties a year.

The council’s resolution describes these promises as a "covenant," a legally binding promise about what a landowner will or won’t do with his property. Normally, covenants are signed for the benefit of specific neighboring properties, whose owners have the right to seek a court order for enforcement. But in the gardens’ case, the "covenant" mentioned in the resolution doesn’t name any specific beneficiary. That means, despite the name, it is not a true restrictive covenant, and the Village Council could change it with a majority vote, according to an opinion letter prepared for the village in April by Nancy E. Stroud, a land use and local government attorney in Boca Raton.

Meanwhile, neighbors say the park already is growing more noisy.

Helene Kronberg, who has lived near the garden for about 26 years, said she called the police to complain about noise coming from the park last month.

“It wasn’t the first time I have called. We are not opposed to a restaurant. What we are opposed to is a banquet facility that operates every night,” said Kronberg, 57. “They are already having more parties than they are supposed to. They were supposed to have four — exclusively to raise funds for the garden ... And they just had a party for a private law firm.”

Despite the opposition, the village has been in negotiations with restaurateur Lalo Durazno and lawyer Scott Silver, who formed a partnership for the venture. Durazno is known in Miami for his Peacock Garden Café and Jaguar in Coconut Grove and Talavera in Coral Gables. Silver converted the former Burger King World Headquarters in Palmetto Bay into a new Village Center, where social events are held. Their vision includes a Sunday brunch, as well as a five-course dinner for weddings.

“The size of the property needs a high volume operation in order to be profitable,” Durazno and Silver wrote in response to the village’s request for restaurant proposals.

That’s precisely what some residents fear.

The village has the financial means to absorb the gardens’ losses. The median value of a home in Pinecrest is $493,000, and residents pay the second-lowest tax rate in Miami-Dade County.

As of 2012, the village had spent about $24 million on the garden — including the $12 million used to buy the property and the $8.9 million used to help build a new library and community center, Galiano Gomez said. Donors have contributed an additional $7 million.

If the restaurant opens, it would generate at least $210,000, Village Manager Yocelyn Galiano Gomez said. It would be located in the 1937 coral rock building near the gardens’ entrance, that is known today as Cypress Hall. The 5,188-square-feet building once housed the Parrot Cafe, which opened its doors in 1954 and served breakfast and lunch — burgers, fries and milk shakes. It closed with Parrot Jungle.

“For the past two years, we have been moving cautiously ahead. First waiting for the economy to improve and then bringing in restaurant consultants to guide us,” Lerner said at her state of the village address last week. And she added that the opponents of the plan are a part of a “very vocal minority of neighbors who are working against the community’s best interest.”