Feds: Local governments violated the Civil Rights Act in Coral Gables trolley case

Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and Coral Gables violated part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 when they allowed a controversial trolley garage to be built in a historic black neighborhood in Coconut Grove, federal officials have found.

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation, triggered by a neighbor’s complaint, found the county failed to ensure the cities followed the law. The cities, in turn, violated the law by not conducting a study during the garage’s “planning stages” to ensure that race did not play a part in determining where it was built or whether the garage would have an “adverse impact” on the West Grove neighborhood, which has long struggled to attract business.

The two municipalities, which say they were unaware of the requirements, also failed to perform public outreach as required by the law, the investigation found.

The county and the cities must now submit a plan for addressing the violations, including a study on whether the garage negatively impacts the neighborhood and whether a better location exists.

University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri, whose Center for Ethics & Public Service has helped residents fight the garage, said the ruling calls into question whether the governments violated the law in other projects where federal transportation money was used.

“This letter and memorandum raise a significant question about whether the county and these two municipalities have ever been in compliance with Title VI, because apparently they’re not aware of the objectives and have no program in effect,” he said. “Title VI is one of the main provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so this statute is 49 years old. People marched and died because of this.”

The trolley garage, which is nearly completed and is supposed to be used to store and maintain Coral Gables’ popular trolleys, has ignited a bitter battle, pitting neighbors, ministers and a team of pro bono lawyers against the local governments and developer Henry Torres. Neighbors staged protests and homeowner associations passed resolutions opposing it, while two lawsuits continue to wind through state court.

The saga began after Torres, president of Astor Development, brokered a deal with Coral Gables to build the city a new garage in exchange for land where the garage now stands on South Le Jeune Road near the tony Village of Merrick Park. Torres wants to build a 10-story luxury mixed-use condominium project on the site.

Astor found land in the Grove’s historic Bahamian settlement in the 3300 block of Douglas Road. The land backs up to single-family houses, including a pink ranch where resident Dorothy Henry has lived for almost two decades and raised five children.

The city of Miami issued Astor a warrant for the garage without holding a public hearing, infuriating neighbors. In April, Clarice Cooper, who grew up in the neighborhood and has lived across the street since 1981, filed her complaint with the Department of Transportation.

The DOT has authority to step in because one of the trolleys assigned to the garage was purchased with federal money. According to the report, the Federal Transit Administration awarded the county more than $69 million to use on public transportation in the county’s 34 municipalities in 2009. The county, in turn, gave 20 percent to local cities and purchased 34 buses and trolleys on behalf of seven, including Coral Gables and Miami. In 2010, both cities signed agreements vowing to follow federal laws, which the county was supposed to monitor.

But the investigation found the county failed to monitor the cities to ensure they followed the requirements under the Civil Rights Act. Title VI of the act specifies that entities that receive federal funds for public transportation facilities cannot locate them in neighborhoods that would impact those “on the grounds of race, color or national origin.’’

“While MDT has submitted some evidence of its process for ensuring sub-recipient compliance … it has failed to sufficiently ensure actual compliance with the regulations,” the report said.

The report also found that other than posting a notice online, “the city of Miami took no action to solicit community input or otherwise evaluate the impact of the new maintenance facility on the local community.”

Neither county transportation officials nor city officials responded to a request for comment.

But attorneys for Coral Gables say both cities and the county have tentatively agreed to conduct the required studies to fulfill their obligations under the law.

“The city doesn’t believe it committed a civil rights violation, but we’re working with the city of Miami and the county,” City Attorney Craig Leen said. “We hope to work the matter out with the FTA, but in no way do we agree that we violated the Civil Rights Act.”

In fact, Coral Gables has sued Astor for breach of contract and asked a judge to determine whether the garage follows the city of Miami’s zoning code. Coral Gables also plans to ask a judge to determine whether the city or Astor should be responsible for completing the study required by the FTA, said attorney Steve Helfman. The case is expected to be in court in February.

And because the city’s only use of federal transit money involves this particular trolley, Helfman does not believe any other projects violate the act.

“There is no broad sweeping violation that we are aware of,” he said. “We have no other projects to which it would apply.”

Astor, however, believes the city should have made sure the Civil Rights Act was followed.

“The city of Coral Gables recently learned that they were subject to the rules and regulations of the FTA, of which the city manager and the city attorney were not aware of in the past,” Astor spokesman Tad Schwartz said.

“Their compliance with the FTA program was not disclosed in any way with our agreement. This wasn’t in our contract.”

Much of the controversy surrounding the garage involves how it was approved. Neighbors say Torres sent representatives to meet with two neighborhood homeowner associations in March 2012. They asked that the garage include retail space and trolley stops to benefit the neighborhood, but Coral Gables — which will ultimately run and maintain the garage — refused.

Residents grew angrier when they learned City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff had stepped in, met with other groups and secured a promise from the developer to donate $200,000 to upgrade playing fields at Armbrister Park, where the neighborhood’s popular Pop Warner league plays.

“In the past, if they wanted to do something in the community, they’d go to [a homeowners association] meeting and if they got one or two people to sign off on it, then it was OK,” said Pastor Jeffrey Hamilton, chairman of the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance, a partnership of neighborhood churches that also objected to the garage. “That’s not how it should be. I’m glad the feds have now stated that and will force the city, especially in our district, to do what’s right when it comes to the community.”

The FTA is now requiring the county and the cities to submit a plan of action within 10 days for addressing the violations. Once it is submitted, federal officials will determine what steps to take next. A spokeswoman for the agency said “it would be premature” to comment on what those steps might be.

But in the report, officials warned that Coral Gables and Miami must also determine whether there is a better location for the garage that has a “less disparate impact on the basis of race, color or national origin” and what “mitigating measures” might be taken.

For Clarice Cooper, the findings provide little relief.

“We know it’s not going to be a speedy resolution and I’ve resigned myself to that,” she said. “Sometimes when I look out the window, I just wish the whole building would go away and I know that’s not going to happen.”

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