When a group of developers wanted to build a new industrial complex on rural land just beyond Miami’s western suburbs in 2015, their zoning application to the county cited the prospect of traffic relief from a historic expansion of State Road 836 by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
“MDX’s initial studies have identified a number of locations for the ‘southwest’ extension of SR 836,” read the proposal by the Neighborhood Planning Company, a partnership that owns the land where the 60-acre warehouse and office complex would go. All “options being studied would bring any extension to within no more than 40 blocks of the Property.”
Miami-Dade rejected Neighborhood Planning’s application, but three years later that hypothetical extension of the Dolphin Expressway into Kendall is getting closer to becoming reality — with an alignment that would go through the developer’s land holdings along what would be 172nd Avenue. Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to take a final vote at a 9:30 a.m. meeting Thursday on the land-plan changes needed to approve the 13-mile “Kendall Expressway,” an MDX proposal that has won support from developers and western commuters and drawn opposition from environmentalists and slow-growth advocates.
“I am writing today to express our strong support of the proposed Kendall Parkway,” Truly Burton, director of the Builders Association of South Florida, wrote county commissioners in April. “Less expensive housing costs in West Dade shouldn’t mean a multi-hour, daily commute. These residents have been begging for traffic relief for years.”
One flashpoint in the debate is whether the expanded six-lane expressway to the west will hasten the expansion of Miami-Dade’s Urban Development Boundary, an imaginary line intended to create a wide buffer between the Everglades and dense suburban neighborhoods and commercial complexes.
MDX, an independent toll agency, needs Miami-Dade’s permission to build the 836 past the Urban Development Boundary, and county commissioners in June granted preliminary approval for the plan.
“This road will change the playing field,” said Laura Reynolds, a consultant with Friends of the Everglades. “It doesn’t matter what the commission says now [about the Urban Development Boundary]. The reality is a six-lane highway will force future commissions to move it.” MDX also has pledged to purchase 1,000 acres between the extension and the existing boundary as a buffer — land that would be turned over to the county as a preservation area.
The 2015 application by Neighborhood Planning offers fodder for both sides. It shows a developer citing the prospect of a new expressway in West Kendall as helping its pitch for moving the Urban Development Boundary by showing nearby roads would be able to handle the extra traffic. Backers of the 836 plan point to unprecedented rules attached to the county legislative package needed to approve it that would bar developers from using the new expressway in future traffic calculations.
Miami-Dade’s planning department drafted the restrictions, which set up an 80-square-mile zone around the proposed expressway where developers would have to justify their projects using traffic flows before construction of the 836 extension, said Lourdes Gomez, deputy director of Regulatory and Environmental Resources for Miami-Dade County.
“It’s as if this roadway is not there,” Gomez said of the future 836 extension. “You’ve basically removed this improvement from the equation.”
It would take a two-thirds vote by the County Commission to lift the new restrictions on traffic calculations — the same majority needed to move the Urban Development Boundary itself. Opponents see the restrictions as a good plan on paper, but limits that wouldn’t endure once new commissioners are pressured by developers to take advantage of the expressway’s potential to expand growth.
“Language in a comprehensive plan is nice,” said Richard Grosso, an environmental lawyer representing the Hold the Line Coalition. “But it is overwhelmed by political desires. If [commissioners] want to do something, they’re going to either ignore the language, repeal it or amend it.”
Broader environmental concerns have helped fuel the 836 fight, with the expressway cutting through land included in past federal plans to help preserve the Everglades. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami, cheered environmental groups in August when he issued a letter saying he would oppose the 836 extension “until it is aligned as far east as possible” and away from areas designed for Everglades restoration. That struck a political nerve, since West Kendall residents largely support the expressway but have warned that an eastern alignment would bring it too close to their neighborhoods.
After talks with Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who also holds the appointed post of MDX chairman, Rubio on Wednesday released a second letter that dropped the “as far east as possible” language. It stuck with demands that the extension not endanger Everglades efforts, and included a demand that MDX formalize in writing its plan to purchase hundreds of acres of land sought by Washington for a key restoration project nearby. A spokeswoman for Gimenez said the mayor accepted Rubio’s demands, but did not provide specifics on how much land MDX was willing to acquire.
The 836 fight dovetails with the decades-old conflict over the county’s development boundary, with developers urging the County Commission to expand the boundary and environmentalists pushing back on the idea. Land holders near the proposed 836 route have been active donors in county races over the years, including the recent round of County Commission races.
Companies at least partially owned by Neighborhood Planning partner Armando Guerra gave about $10,000 for the 2018 campaign that saw five incumbents reelected to four-year terms. Sergio Pino, a top Miami developer and a Guerra partner in Neighborhood Planning, gave more than $25,000. Add in contributions to the failed state campaign by Ana Martinez — daughter of the county commissioner sponsoring the 836 approval, West Kendall’s Joe Martinez — and the combined donations top $50,000.
A lawyer for Neighborhood Planning did not respond to an interview request. Guerra declined to comment beyond describing his development group as patient investors in western Dade who aren’t engaged in the 836 debate.
“We’re long-term land holders in the area,” Guerra said. “So we’re not involved in the MDX process.”
Partners tied to Mar Land Group, which owns land west of the proposed highway, gave about $6,000 to candidates, and the developers behind a proposed project in the area called Green City gave more than $10,000.
Green City’s situation highlights the stakes involved in the 836 extension, since the developer has joined environmentalists in pushing back on the MDX plan for the expressway. “Please consider the ramifications of rushing to judgment on this very important matter,” Green City lawyer Francisco Pines wrote in a letter to commissioners and Gimenez this week, urging a delay of Thursday’s vote. “Let’s measure twice and cut once.”
The latest route takes the six-lane highway through the middle of Green City’s planned 860-acre mix of homes, offices and shops. While the project sits west of the Urban Development Boundary, putting it outside of the county’s urban development zone, it sits within territory the county has labeled an “urban expansion” area. That designation means that once Miami-Dade determines it has run out of building space east of the development boundary, it plans to extend the line west to include that “urban expansion” area.
Pines said the developers have been assembling the property for years under the assumption that Miami-Dade would eventually extend the Urban Development Boundary west into the expansion area as planned. They see the 836 route as scuttling that plan.
“The county has told everyone that this is where urbanization is going to occur,” Pines said. “We want them to follow the intent and purpose of” the county’s official blueprint for growth, called the Comprehensive Master Development Plan. It’s that document the County Commission must change to allow the MDX to construct the $1 billion 836 extension, which would be paid for by toll revenue collected by the MDX.
Gimenez is the appointed chairman of the MDX board, and he is also leading the public campaign for approval of the 836 extension by the County Commission. He sees opponents unfairly muddling the perpetual debate on the Urban Development Boundary and the construction of a 13-mile expressway intended to give a speedier western route to Miami for Kendall commuters who currently must take neighborhood streets east before getting on the Palmetto Expressway.
Gimenez doesn’t see developers stopping their push for permission to build farther west, but he also doesn’t see a new 836 extension weakening the political resistance to moving the Urban Development Boundary.
“There’s always this pressure on the [boundary], whether that road is built or not,” he said on a recent appearance on WLRN. “That pressure is always going to exist.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.