Miami-Dade County

Tequesta site controversy will go to mediation

The controversy over what to do about the discovery of a prehistoric Tequesta Indian village site in downtown Miami has been removed from the hands of politicians — for now.

In a meeting Thursday, Miami commissioners readily endorsed a proposal by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff to send the issue to mediation in an attempt to forge a compromise between a developer who wants to build on the site and preservationists hoping to salvage the archaeological finds in place.

That approach, Sarnoff said, might avert the need for the commission to get involved in an increasingly contentious battle over the fate of the 2,000-year old Tequesta village remnants, which some archaeologists and historians consider among the most significant prehistoric finds in the country.

“All I’m saying is, let’s see if we can get this thing resolved before we hear it,” Sarnoff told fellow commissioners.

As a possible model for a compromise, Sarnoff and some preservationists have circulated images from historic sites around the world that successfully integrate archaeological features with new development. The developers have said they’re exploring ways of saving and displaying two circular posthole arrangements within the complex.

Participants in the mediation session would have to agree on how much of the ancient site to save, and how best to display those features — mainly arrays of postholes carved in bedrock — to the public. Archaeologists believe the postholes mark the foundations of Tequesta dwellings and structures that occupied the site until the mid-1700s.

Angel Cortiñas, a former state appellate judge who served as mediator in the successful resolution of a legal case over the rights of the homeless to congregate downtown, will conduct a mediation session on Monday. Sarnoff said invited participants include the developer, MDM Group, and the site archaeologist, Bob Carr; historians Greg Bush and Arva Moore Parks; architect and preservationist Richard Heisenbottle; preservationist and downtown businessman Brian Alonso; and state, county and city staffers.

Because city commissioners and members of the city’s historic preservation board may still have to vote on the matter, no members of those two panels were invited to the mediation session, Sarnoff said.

If mediation doesn’t produce an agreement before March 27th — the date on which the commission is tentatively set to hear a series of appeals from MDM — then commissioners will take up the case.

MDM, which plans to build a hotel and entertainment complex called Met Square on the site, is challenging three recent decisions by the city’s historic preservation board, which has legal authority over designated archaeological and historic sites.

The board first rejected a plan by MDM to cut out a circular posthole arrangement from the bedrock for display in a nearby plaza, then asked the developer to come back with a better plan for protection of the archaeological features in place.

It also asked the city’s preservation officer for a preliminary report on the merits of designating the site, which also includes remnants of Henry Flaglers’ Royal Poinciana Hotel and a 19th Century U.S. Army Fort, as a protected historic landmark. The city attorney, however, halted a hearing at which the board was to discuss the report — which concluded the site meets the criteria for historic designation — prompting an outcry from preservationists.

Still unclear is who would enforce any agreement. Preservationists want the city preservation board to retain oversight over any development.

In case mediation fails, City Attorney Victoria Méndez retained the Coral Gables city attorney’s office to represent preservation board members and city preservation office staffers without charge in the appeal hearing. That’s in part because preservation board members and city preservation office staffers could have views that conflict with those of city commissioners or city administrators, who are represented by the city attorney.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” said Méndez, adding that it would be confusing if she acted simultaneously on behalf of the commissioners as well as staffers and preservation board members. “This is just to maintain order. For example, when the developer’s attorney is cross-examining staff, the Coral Gables attorney can object.”

Méndez said the Coral Gables attorney will not have the authority to override any of her past decisions or instructions.

“This isn’t about giving opinions or anything like that,” she said. “He’s there to help maintain order on behalf of staff.”

In other business, commissioners approved a compensation package for newly hired city manager Daniel Alfonso.

The previous manage, Johnny Martinez, earned a $195,000 base salary in addition to other benefits that included allowances for a car and cellphone.

“I believe he’s worth a lot more,” Commissioner Wifredo Gort said of Alfonso.

The commission voted to give Alfonso a package that includes a base salary of $199,000 along with the same allowances Martinez had.

Additionally, Alfonso will receive disability insurance.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff encouraged the commission to include the disability provision, citing Martinez— who suffered a stroke last year — and the stressful nature of the job.

“We don’t care about Danny, we care about his family,” Sarnoff joked.