Miami-Dade County

Ruling in Miami Walmart lawsuit may resolve little

Rendering of the Midtown Walmart
Rendering of the Midtown Walmart ZYSKOVICH ARCHITECTS

In the David-and-Goliath fight between Miami residents and Walmart, a ruling last week by a panel of judges that a planned Midtown superstore narrowly violated the city’s zoning laws has been hailed by foes of the world’s largest retailer as a significant victory.

Three judges told City Hall it upheld a permit for a 203,000-square-foot project last year in “departure from the essential requirements of the law.” Walmart, for all its heft and high-powered attorneys — including former Miami mayor Manny Diaz — was told to go back and secure a proper permit.

But in the wake of the ruling, Walmart and the Miami City Attorney’s office haven’t flinched.

Plans are already under way to bring the issue of Walmart’s permit back to the Miami Commission as early as next month for what attorneys believe should be a quick fix. The retailer, happily stating that the court sided mostly with Walmart and the city, is predicting it will receive an “amended permit” in short order.

That’s raising objections from Walmart’s opponents, who say the ruling demands the entire permitting process must start from scratch.

“If the city of Miami dares to defy the ruling of those three judges and break its own laws again after the judges ruled they broke its laws a first time, we’ll sue once again,” pledged anti-Walmart activist Grant Stern.

Stern and others have been fighting Walmart since the summer of 2012, when the company submitted an application for its three-story superstore bounded by Northeast 29th and 31st streets, and North Miami Avenue and Midtown Boulevard. The project was eventually approved administratively through a Class II Special Permit by Miami’s planning director, Francisco Garcia.

Stern and others appealed, saying Walmart’s project conflicted with the city’s zoning code and required major variances. The city’s Planning Zoning and Appeals Board rejected the appeal, and then the city commission upheld that decision.

Undeterred, Walmart foes petitioned Miami-Dade’s circuit court, leading to last week’s decision by a three-judge panel. The panel agreed with the city and Walmart on most issues. But, noting the petitioners’ “most compelling” argument was that improperly granted variances required the application be resubmitted, the panel said Walmart’s receipt of five loading berths was more than the three “total” allowed by zoning code.

The panel then quashed the commission’s decision upholding the zoning board’s denial of the appeal, and remanded the issue back to the city.

Activists declared victory. But so did Walmart, which swiftly issued a statement saying the retail chain would “look forward to receiving an amended permit as soon as possible.” Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez said this week that the city commission will now reconsider the appeal, but only on the narrow issue of the number of loading berths.

“It will be a hearing limited to that issue,” Mendez wrote in an email.

As long as Walmart — which declined to comment for this story — is amenable to three berths, the commission can correct the issue and the permit can be amended administratively, she said. Garcia, the planning director, said that might actually result in a worse project, one that would comply with the court’s “curious” ruling but would generate more street traffic, with trucks forced to wait to unload their wares.

“I don’t see how five loading berths makes it worse,” he said. “If anything it makes it better.”

Paul Savage, attorney for the petitioners, said his clients simply want the city to follow its own laws. He said his clients will fight to ensure that’s what happens.

“Should the Commission seek to skirt the correct and proper process again, the Court will no doubt quash the Commission’s Resolution again for misunderstanding and flouting its ruling,” said Savage. “The City Commission cannot amend, ratify or breathe life into a void, illegal permit.”