In a sharply worded ruling, a state appellate court threw out North Miami Beach’s zoning approval for a controversial planned high-rise hotel and office complex next to historic Greynolds Park, handing an unexpected victory to a group of activists and neighbors who have been fighting the project for years.
The ruling quashes a 2012 upzoning that would have allowed developer Braha Dixie LLC to build a pair of 10-story hotel towers and a six-story office building on West Dixie Highway by the entrance to the Miami-Dade park, which includes one of the last extensive protected natural areas in the northern end of the county. Critics said the proposed towers would be plainly visible from the park’s interior, spoil its natural and historic ambiance and pose a threat to its environmental health.
The 16-page decision, by a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal, appears to leave little wiggle room for the city to reconsider the upzoning for the project at its contemplated scale, and even reads at times like a rebuke of municipal officials.
The judges concluded that North Miami Beach’s then-city attorney gave advice to council members that was “clearly in error,” leading them to ignore their own zoning ordinance in approving changes that are significantly out of scale with the surroundings — which include not just the park and the Oleta River but also some low-scale residential neighborhoods and commercial strips where heights are capped at three stories. The council then also ignored warnings from opponents of the project during public hearings that they were misapplying the law, the appeal decision says.
The appeal ruling also pointedly notes that council members in their deliberations focused almost exclusively on the economic benefits of the proposed development instead of its impact on the park, the neighborhood and traffic on two-lane West Dixie Highway as required by its zoning rules.
The court slams them [city officials] for thumbing their nose at their own code.
Attorney Charles Baron
“We’re happy with the decision, of course,” said Charles Baron, an attorney who lives near the proposed project site and sued along with three others, including former North Miami Beach council member Robert Taylor. “The court slams them [city officials] for thumbing their nose at their own code. And it was blatant in many ways.”
The developer’s attorney, Rod Fiener, of Fort Lauderdale, expressed disappointment with the decision and said his client is weighing legal options. Those could include asking for a rehearing from the DCA, which must be done within 15 days, eventually appealing to the Florida Supreme Court, or accepting the decision and reworking the application to comply with it.
North Miami Beach city attorney Jose Smith, who was not with the city when the controversial upzoning was approved, said he disagrees with the ruling but accepts it. He said he has undertaken measures to ensure that development decisions by the council weigh the appropriate ordinances and criteria to avoid the type of errors cited by the appeal judges.
The city’s mayor, George Vallejo, who supported the rezoning, said he doesn’t believe the ruling will stop development at the four-acre site for good. The developer could come back with a scaled-back vision, Vallejo and Smith said, or the city could instead come up with its own compromise zoning proposal for the area to allow some more height and density than current zoning permits, though less than the developer sought.
That, Vallejo said, would protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods while also satisfying zoning code requirements that new development be “consistent with and in scale” with its surroundings. That new zoning could be similar to mixed-use zoning rules approved for nearby areas of the city to spur revitalization, he said.
“The ball is now in the owners’ court, but this may be an opportunity for the city to look at that area.” Vallejo said. “It’s only a matter of time before there is a crane at that site. That particular site is a very desirable part of the city that’s ripe for redevelopment.”
The appeal court concluded that the rezoning violated that “consistent” scale requirement in the city’s code. Though courts are generally reluctant to second-guess local authorities’ zoning decisions and are legally limited in what they can do in such cases, the court said the violation in this instance was so clear as to constitute “a miscarriage of justice,” compelling the judges to intervene.
Also coming in for some fire from the appeal judges: A lower appellate panel of Miami-Dade’s circuit court that upheld the city’s upzoning.
It’s only a matter of time before there is a crane at that site.
North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo
Activists with the Save Greynolds Park committee of Friends of Oleta River State Park said the towers could have a significant impact on the 249-acre Greynolds Parks because of their proximity to it, giving rise to concerns about visual and light pollution as well as environmental damage to plants and animals during construction.
The park, the second oldest in the county and a designated historic site, includes a largely intact hardwood hammock and mangrove forest, a golf course, a boathouse and cabins available for overnight rental.
Originally a limestone quarry, the park was donated to the county in 1933 by A.O. Greynolds and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to counter the Great Depression. The Seminole Indians had previously used the land along the Oleta River at the park’s eastern boundary as a trading post supplying early non-native settlers.