Miami-Dade County

Miami alley giveaway puzzles property owners

Miami’s politicians often have been accused of giving away public land to wealthy developers. But commissioners could decide Monday to gift property to the little guy.

If legislation passes, thousands of home and business owners scattered throughout the city could get bigger backyards. Only, for many, the extra land they’re getting is the unwanted, overgrown alley behind their fence.

And it’s an offer they can’t refuse.

“To me, it don’t seem to be too much of a value,” said Gwen Johnson, who stands to receive part of a 10-foot alley behind her Overtown home. “They’re giving us their trash to clean up.”

The city began to consider relinquishing its right to public alleys months ago in response to complaints from property owners about drugs, dumping, prostitution and homelessness, according to Public Works Director Ed Santamaria.

The alleys in question were created decades ago by developers who wanted public access for solid waste pickup, ambulances, and other services, Santamaria said. But an audit of Miami’s alleys found that 313 were unpaved, unused and often encroached upon by surrounding homeowners and commercial properties.

“These are public alleys that existed only on paper. They didn’t functionally serve their intended purposes for various reasons. So why have them out there,” Santamaria said.

Officials said property owners inconvenienced by the alleys could close them out with fencing once they own the land. The commission gave tentative approval to the proposal in May. But since then, the city has found some of the roughly 2,500 affected property owners less than enthusiastic, and in many cases suspicious.

“It’s weird, to be honest with you,” said Leonvil Dareus, who like Johnson would get part of a 10-foot alley behind her house on 75th Street. “Getting something for free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free.”

While property owners will no doubt get added value to their property -- Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis said the alley will assume the price-per-square-foot associated with the adjoining lot -- they also will pay higher property taxes. And utility easements will remain on the land unless Santamaria and the utility companies agree to release them.

For those who don’t want the city’s deal, they have no choice but to accept and then appeal after-the-fact. The legislation proposed to commissioners would revert the ownership of the land to abutting property owners, which according to Santamaria would take effect by December. At that point, property owners can appeal to the city, but Santamaria said only alleys that are needed for access or would become a health or safety hazard will be considered.

“There’s really no method for refusing,” he said. “You can appeal for public health safety and welfare, but that doesn’t really fit that bill in terms of ‘I just don’t want this to happen.’ ”

Santamaria said most property owners are in favor of the proposal. Complaints that the city doesn’t want to maintain the property are misguided, he said, because the city has never maintained and kept the alleys. That’s always been on the abutting property owners, he said.

But homeowners who spoke to The Herald nevertheless believe the city is motivated less by public safety than by a desire to rid itself of land it doesn’t want. For Cathy Tully, adding part of 25-foot Ah We Wa Street to her property would represent a lot of land. But she said a sewer system runs beneath the street, and she worries the alley could be torn up, as has happened in the past.

“I would love the extra property,” said Tully. “But they’re not giving it to us out of the goodness of their heart.”

The closing of alleys has been controversial recently in Miami and activists have become guarded, though they’re typically fretting decisions to give alleys to developers. Now that the city is moving to close hundreds, some have questioned whether the city is giving up too much.

George Azpiri, for instance, is set to get a swath of bayfront land. Though it appears Azpiri already owns the land along Bayshore -- it’s enclosed and there’s a dock built against it -- the property actually belongs to the city.

Azpiri says the strip of land has become a security issue. Trespassers have fallen and hurt themselves and people have used it to steal his vessels, he said.

But some feel the city should be reclaiming the land, not giving it away. During a recent homeowners meeting at Legion Park, Shorecrest resident Skip Van Cel asked Mayor Tomás Regalado why the city would ever give away land on the bay.

“He built an illegal boat dock there and the city is just going to turn it over to him?” Van Cel said, incredulously.

In other cases, activists say commercial properties stand to benefit. Some said turning over an alley in Wynwood would join multiple properties owned by the operator of a dump on North Miami Avenue, perhaps allowing the property to expand. The same concern was voiced Wednesday about two multi-family properties near Morningside.

City administrators said recently that they were still reviewing the alleys on their list, which they said remained fluid.

In May, commissioners unanimously passed the proposal. But Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said last week that the city might be better off simply scrapping the whole thing, and considering alley closures on a case-by-base basis.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” he said. “This thing has caused more consternation than we’ve ever seen.”