Local governments get an extension from feds to address Coral Gables trolley issues

Miami-Dade County, Coral Gables and city of Miami officials will have another month to map out a response to findings that they violated the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 by allowing the construction of a controversial trolley garage in a historic black neighborhood in Coconut Grove.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said Wednesday it had extended a 10-day deadline to Dec. 2 after receiving a request from the three.

Last month, federal officials investigating a complaint from resident Clarice Cooper about the garage in the 3300 block of Douglas Road found all three governments violated the landmark act that requires a study, as well as public outreach, before local governments use federal money for transportation projects. The law is supposed to ensure that the projects don’t cause disproportional harm to minorities.

The garage has been bitterly opposed by the mostly black neighborhood, with residents staging protests as well filing a lawsuit. In August, a judge dismissed the suit saying residents had failed to follow Miami’s administrative appeal process. The city of Coral Gables has also sued the developer for breach of contract, which residents have asked to join.

The federal findings, the residents’ lawyers say, could provide new ammunition in court.

“We do think that this should have enormous legal and moral impact on this entire project,” said one of their attorneys, Philip Friedin. “Federal law is paramount and especially federal civil rights laws. And as far as I’m concerned, they have nothing to do with whether local administrative remedies were followed, which we have contended were not.”

In 2009, the county received a federal grant totaling more than $69 million. Part of that money went to buy 34 buses and trolleys, including one for Coral Gables and 19 for Miami. Both cities signed agreements vowing to follow the federal civil rights laws under the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But when developer Henry Torres proposed building a luxury 10-story, mixed-use condo project on land where the Coral Gables garage now sits, near the tony Village of Merrick Park — and build a new garage on land he had purchased in the West Grove — none of the federal rules were followed, federal officials found. Miami zoning officials approved the project without a public hearing in May 2012 and in August, Coral Gables approved the land swap. Neither performed studies on whether the project would harm the West Grove neighborhood or nor conducted public outreach required by the Civil Rights Act.

In fact, when federal officials began investigating, local city officials told them they were unaware of the obligation.

Miami-Dade, which was supposed to enforce the rules, told investigators they “recently” audited Coral Gables and, when the city failed to respond, scheduled a site visit for November.

In a statement released Wednesday, county information officer Karla Damian said, “Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) has done Title VI analyses for other projects and programs that MDT administers itself. This is a unique situation. MDT is not aware of any previous instances similar to this.”

Miami city officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday.

Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen, who met with county officials Wednesday to work on the plan, said the city believed the developer was responsible for complying with the law.

“We have not violated anything and in fact we have done everything we can to raise these issues and object. We want the public to know that, our residents and our historic African American community. We are doing the right thing. The issue came to us and we brought it to court,” he said.

Furthermore, he said, Astor “picked the location. They came to us. We’re happy with the trolley building where it is in Coral Gables.”

But Astor said the city should have covered the requirement in its contract with the developer.

“The city of Coral Gables did not do their due diligence in the beginning. Period. End of story,” said spokesman Tadd Schwartz. “The city attorney reviewed the deal and approved it and now he’s saying it’s on us.”

“It is not our responsibility to make the city of Coral Gables compliant with this (federal) program,’’ he said.

To develop the plan, county and city officials must determine who will be responsible for the study and, because the garage is almost finished, determine whether it is harming the neighborhood, which has struggled to attract business over the years. If it is, then the three must come up with a reason why it should remain despite the adverse effects. And even if they do find a reason, they must still determine whether a better location exists. They have 90 days to complete the study and public outreach.

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