Miami-Dade County

Two activists. A Walmart. An election. And a lawsuit.

An early rendering of the planned Midtown Walmart superstore
An early rendering of the planned Midtown Walmart superstore Handout

It has all the ingredients of a Miami election drama: winning candidates who allegedly shouldn’t have been allowed on the ballot; an 11th hour lawsuit; and a power struggle with the world’s largest retailer.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the Midtown Community Development District. But a lawsuit that effectively stopped two activists from taking a seat on the board of the public agency has placed the tiny district in a unique spotlight.

Grant Stern, a Miami mortgage broker, and Peter Ehrlich, a Lemon City property owner, were elected to the Midtown district’s board of supervisors at the ballot box by a majority of some 300 district voters on Nov. 8 and were to be sworn in Tuesday afternoon. But the district’s board stopped short of welcoming them after an affiliate of DDR, the owner of the Shops at Midtown Miami, filed suit on the evening of Dec. 9 to stop them from taking office.

The problem? DDR says that because neither Stern nor Ehrlich lives in the district, they should never have been on the ballot and are ineligible to sit on the board under Florida law.

“DDR, as a significant property owner and stakeholder in the Midtown Miami project, filed suit to ensure that the [district] complies with the law which requires electors to be residents of the District,” said DDR attorney Neisen Kasdin. “DDR would oppose seating any individual who does not qualify under the law.”

They want to cover up the fraud that happened with the Walmart permit

Grant Stern

But there’s a bigger picture to this quandary: Stern and Ehrlich are staunch critics of the massive Walmart superstore planned within the district boundaries on land sold by a DDR affiliate.

Stern, who lives close by in Edgewater and says he’s been looking to move into Midtown, ran for the Midtown district board in part because the elected body can fight to block Walmart from opening what he contends is an illegally permitted, 200,000-square-foot monolith at 3055 N. Miami Ave. The board is uniquely positioned to stop Walmart from moving forward because a strip of land owned by the district along North Miami Avenue falls within Walmart’s building site — even though the district never gave the retailer consent to build on its property.

Stern contends that Walmart and DDR — which also sued the district, its chairman, the elections supervisor and canvassing board — obtained a special permit by misrepresenting their permission to build on neighboring properties.

“They’re deathly afraid of letting us sit on the board,” said Stern, who disputes that he’s ineligible to serve as a supervisor.

A Walmart spokesman declined to comment.

Stern has been battling Walmart for years, dating back to when the retailer filed for a special Class II permit with the city. Along the entire way, through Miami City Hall and the courts, Stern and other Walmart critics have accused the city of improperly approving Walmart’s application.

Though several years behind schedule, Walmart claimed victory one year ago and broke ground. Construction workers finished foundation work this summer, but were unable to begin vertical construction after it was discovered that they lacked a covenant or unity-of-title joining the two liner properties on either side of its property, including the liner strip owned by the development district.

“To date, the [district], which owns affected property adjacent to the Walmart property, has not yet become a party to a fully executed unity of title,” district manager Craig Wrathell wrote in June to Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez.

As of Wednesday, the city hadn’t received any updates on the unity-of-title issue, and Walmart had yet to receive a vertical construction permit, according to Mendez.

Around the time Walmart halted work on its project, Stern and Ehrlich filed papers to run in the election for the Midtown district board of supervisors. The governing board was created under state law when Midtown property owners were granted the ability to fund public improvements through tax-exempt bonds leveraged with special assessment fees, and has the power to seek legal action against the retailer.

The board, for instance, authorized the expense of $100,000 in September to fight aspects of Walmart’s plans that would reduce on-street parking in the district.

It is baffling why ... [DDR] waited until after the election and literally until the night before the candidates were to take office to seek extraordinary relief from this court

Judge Lisa S. Walsh

What happens next is up to Miami Judge Lisa S. Walsh. On Tuesday, she blasted DDR’s attorneys for filing what she deemed a last-minute motion to block Stern and Ehrlich’s swearing in. She said DDR failed to provide evidence backing its complaint and questioned why they’d waited until one month after the election to attack the candidates’ legitimacy and present candidate affidavits submitted back in June.

“It is baffling why, if the plaintiff is relying upon this six-month-old information, it waited until after the election and literally until the night before the candidates were to take office to seek extraordinary relief from this court,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, the two victors were not allowed on the board Tuesday after district leaders said they want to see the courts rule on the case, and Judge Walsh said DDR Miami can pursue its case on a normal time line. Stern, who says his interest in the district is broader than his fight with Walmart, says he’ll use the down time to continue to look for an apartment in Midtown.

Ehrlich, who acknowledged that the board is in a bind, hopes he’ll be able to serve as well.

“They’re walking a bit of a tightrope trying to honor their huge taxpayers within the property and also have those taxpayers be respectful of everybody else,” Ehrlich said. “I don’t know how it will end up.”