Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioners threaten legal fight for port complex

A 2014 file photo of PortMiami’s southwest corner, long planned as a commercial complex that the City of Miami opposes.
A 2014 file photo of PortMiami’s southwest corner, long planned as a commercial complex that the City of Miami opposes. Miami Herald staff

The prospect of a PortMiami terminal for ferry boats to Cuba is not deterring Miami-Dade commissioners from wanting a new commercial complex there, saying they’ll take Miami to court over the city’s effort to block hotels and offices from rising on the prime piece of waterfront real estate.

At a committee meeting Monday, several commissioners said they did not want Miami-Dade to stray from long-standing plans to turn the port’s southwest corner into a bustling new commercial center that could generate millions in rent to the debt-laden cruise and cargo center.

Miami opposes the plans, saying they would present downtown’s commercial district with unfair competition just a short bridge drive over Biscayne Bay. The city could hold a key piece of leverage over the strategy, since it turned over the port land to Miami-Dade decades ago, and a deed restriction allows Miami to to reclaim the property if it ever gets used for anything other than port purposes.

County lawyers maintain the restriction allows for hotels and offices generally supporting the port, while city lawyers say the language limits growth to maritime uses. At the county’s Trade and Tourism Committee meeting Monday, commissioners suggested bypassing the legal wrangling by asking a judge to issue a ruling over what is allowed by the deed restrictions.

“I think we either have to go the route of getting the court to interpret this, or call their bluff and basically move forward” with development plans, County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro said. “It’s unfortunate we’re at this point.”

Mayor Carlos Gimenez cited the dicey legal situation with Miami when he recently announced a departure from the port’s 2011 growth plan, which called for hotels and offices, in favor of what a spokesman termed as “traditional maritime-related development.”

One possibility under consideration by the port is a ferry terminal that could serve U.S.-to-Cuba ferries once that industry gets off the ground. Washington has already issued permits to ferry operators for Cuba voyages out of the United States, and the companies are awaiting approval from Cuba to get started.

City officials did not speak at the county hearing. One county commissioner, Xavier Suarez, suggested Miami-Dade could use similar restrictions governing the city’s Marine Stadium (which the county used to own) and threaten to block the Miami International Boat Show from operating there. “There’s an interesting confluence here that we should look at,” said Suarez, a former Miami mayor. “There’s always been the temptation to sort of do a quid pro quo.”

The hearing captured the potential for an escalating fight between Miami and Miami-Dade over the port. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the city has reverter clauses for other county parcels as well. “I think that argument is very dangerous,” he said of the Marine Stadium discussion. “I am surprised they would not want to work with the city. I don’t see the reason that they’re hellbent on development of that part of the port.”

The trade committee took no action, though the full commission has already instructed the port to draft a request for development proposals on the southwest corner. Developers are eager to pursue the prime wedge of waterfront land.

“If you look at airports and ports across the country, they already included commercial development because that’s what the traveling public wants,” said Albert Dotson Jr., a lobbyist for Destination 305, a development group that wants build hotels and a convention center on the port’s southwest corner.

Rebeca Sosa, the lone commissioner who spoke against developing the parcel at Monday’s meeting, warned of high stakes if county lawyers try to litigate their way around Miami’s objections. County officials say they weren’t aware of the reverter clause when the 2011 master plan was drafted, and it only came to light in 2014 when David Beckham pursued a soccer stadium for the southwest corner.

“The city is the one to win on this fight. Because they have a reverter clause,” she said. “I understand. It’s a very nice piece of land that’s attractive to any developer. But I’m here for the pockets of the taxpayer.”

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