Miami-Dade County

Miami historic preservation board blocked from discussing historic status for Tequesta site

An archaeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures.
An archaeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In an apparently unprecedented action that provoked outrage from preservationists, a Miami city attorney on Tuesday blocked the city's historic preservation board from discussing potential historic designation for the recently discovered prehistoric Tequesta village site downtown.

Assistant City Attorney Amanda Quirke cited an appeal filed with the city commission by developers who want to build a high-rise hotel and commercial project on the archaeological site. She said the preservation board could not take up the possible designation until after the city commission considers the appeal, tentatively set for March 27.

William Hopper, the board’s chairman and a longtime member of the panel, which has legal authority over historic and archaeological sites, said afterwards he could not recall another instance where the board was precluded by the city from taking preliminary steps to consider historic designation of a site — one of its fundamental discretionary powers.

“This is outrageous,’’ said Becky Roper Matkov, president of Dade Heritage Trust, a preservation group, after the meeting. “This emasculates the board.”

Some board members, clearly frustrated, closely interrogated Quirke, who restated her position without substantial elaboration.

“What does this do to us as a board?” member Hugh Ryan asked.

Quirke, who is new to the position as counsel to the board, did not address that question.

Her directive represented an unexpected curve ball in the increasingly high-stakes effort to salvage the archaeological site, considered by some experts to be one of the most important prehistoric finds in the country.

The preservation board has independent legal authority to protect historic sites, but its decisions can be appealed to the city commission. In this case, the board was not making a decision on designation, but was scheduled to debate whether it should go forward with a formal study of the question — a matter that city commissioners rarely if ever have been asked to intervene in. The city’s preservation officer, Megan McLaughlin, said in a preliminary report last week that the site meets the criteria for designation.

However, attorneys for developer MDM Group, which recently adopted an aggressively adversarial legal position over the fate of the site after news of the discoveries made international headlines, appealed three resolutions overwhelmingly approved by the board last month.

The resolutions asked the city preservation officer to prepare the preliminary report; rejected a plan by MDM to carve out one of the circular arrangements of postholes believed to have been carved by the Tequesta as foundations for a village for display in a plaza, and asked the developer to come back with a plan that protected the archaeological features in place.

The linked appeals, Quirke told the board, raised a “risk of inconsistent results’’ if the preservation board went ahead with its scheduled agenda Tuesday. She did note that the 120-day moratorium triggered by the board vote last month still stands. That means no development action or building permits can be approved while the moratorium, which expires June 18, is in place, McLaughlin said.

The board then quickly and unamimously voted to reschedule consideration of the designation study for its April meeting immediately after the commission appeal, concerned that MDM was trying to run out the clock on the moratorium.

“I don’t want to miss April,” board member Jorge Kuperman said.

MDM attorney Eugene Stearns, apparently notified beforehand by the city that the board discussion would not take place, was not present at the hearing, which had drawn attendance by representatives from preservation groups. Board members also seemed taken aback by Quirke’s decision.

Stearns, a leading Miami litigator, has openly derided conclusions by MDM’s own consulting archaeologist, Bob Carr, and other specialists that the site could be one of the most significant prehistoric finds in the United States, calling them “hokum’’ and “silly.’’ The site, a parking lot for more than 70 years, also contains remnants of Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, which gave rise to the city’s incorporation, as well as a U.S. Army fort dating back to the era of the Seminole Wars.

Carr, Florida state archaeologists and others say hundreds of carved postholes in the bedrock at the site, on the north side of the Miami River, likely represent the foundations of a Tequesta Indian village dating back some 2,000 years.

Designation would not block development on the site. Preservationists want MDM, which knew it was purchasing property in a designated archaeological zone, to redesign its building to protect and properly display the archaeological features.

On Monday, Stearns said in an interview that MDM has asked its architects to look into integrating portions of the site — two of eight circular posthole arrangements that archaelogists believe were the foundations of a Tequesta village — into the building, and displaying them to the public.

But Stearns’s legal strategy appears premised on bypassing the preservation board, which normally would review plans for development on a protected site, and instead presenting the alternative plan to the commission, a political body that doesn’t have the expertise of the historic board. Typically the commission would have on hand a previous decision by the board when considering development on a historic site on appeal.

Several preservation board members asked Quirke to research whether they can testify before the city commission during the appeal as members of the panel to underscore what they said is the importance of allowing the board to do its job.

“You have a lot of support for the decision you made,’’ Ernest Martin, a board member of the Urban Environment League, told the board.