Coral Gables

Coral Gables’ proposal to annex county land moves ahead after decades of pressure

If annexation proposals go through, Coral Gables could grow its population by 10 percent.  This photo is from Gables Bike Day, Oct. 23, 2011.
If annexation proposals go through, Coral Gables could grow its population by 10 percent. This photo is from Gables Bike Day, Oct. 23, 2011. Miami Herald file

After decades of false starts, next week the Miami-Dade County Planning and Advisory Board will consider a proposal from Coral Gables that would allow the City Beautiful to annex two unincorporated areas with borders on the city limits. The board will make a non-binding recommendation, and early next year the proposal will go before the county commission for a vote.

“It will pass. It has been an arduous fight,” said Keith Donner, a resident of the High Pines neighborhood in unincorporated Miami-Dade who has been pushing for annexation for decades. “We’re at annexation 6.0 now,” he joked.

After receiving petitions for annexation from more than 20 percent of area residents, Coral Gables voted to submit two separate proposals to the county in February 2018: one for High Pines/Ponce Davis an unincorporated enclave between the Gables and South Miami, and the other for Little Gables, a small neighborhood to the north, between the Gables and the city of Miami.

Both areas are islands of unincorporated land, surrounded by other municipalities. Both are tucked in to Coral Gables, with its city limits serving as three of their four boundaries. By annexing the neighborhoods, Coral Gables would square off part of its boundaries.

If the county commission approves the proposals — decisions that officials say could come as early as March — voters in each neighborhood will ultimately decide if the benefits outweigh the costs of joining Coral Gables. In total, 5,490 people live in the areas proposed for annexation, or about 10 percent of Coral Gables’ current population.

“Annexation is absolutely a great thing, and the Little Gables residents have been on this path seeking annexation for probably 40 years, is my estimation,” said Karen Shane, president of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association. She and her neighbors worked hard to get the required numbers of signatures on their petition.

By voting to become part of Coral Gables, the city’s proposal states the new residents will experience a higher quality of life: more parks and green space, shorter response times for fire rescue and police personnel, the chance to be part of a city with a triple-A bond rating, and the many other perks of being Coral Gables residents.

“The problem is that Little Gables is an enclave and it’s far away from unincorporated Dade County and so our emergency services come from far away. Minutes can be the difference between life and death,” Shane said.

According to the Coral Gables proposals, EMS response time to Little Gables will go from its current average with county services of 9:29 minutes, to 5:43 minutes with the city. In the High Pines/Ponce Davis neighborhood, fire response would drop from a seven-minute average to six. Police non-emergency response time would drop from its current time of 34 minutes to around eight minutes. Emergency police response time in both areas will drop to five minutes.

Coral Gables city officials meet with residents from the unincorporated Miami-Dade neighborhoods of High Pines and Ponce Davis in June 2017 to discuss annexing the area. Lance Dixon Miami Herald file photo

Still, all good things come at a price. In this case, residents will see their property tax rates increase $1.21 per thousand in taxable value to match those of other Gables residents. That increase would amount to an increase of $500 to $1,000 annually for average homeowners. Residents would also be charged $70 per year for fire services, and $405 more than what they currently pay for solid waste removal.

Coral Gables officials in favor of the annexation argue the services and perks of being a city resident are worth the price.

“We have the second lowest millage rate in Miami-Dade County for a full-service city,” said Vice Mayor Vince Lago. “We are also one of the most financially secure and viable cities not only in Miami-Dade but in Florida.”

But it’s not just the increased taxes and fees that have some people in the annexation areas worried.

“I’m not real fond of Coral Gables and its government,” said Gary Timin, who owns a townhouse in High Pines and does not support annexation. “I think it’s pompous. I’m sure they provide a good service but to me, they’re also marketing social class pride.”

Timin admitted that the prestige associated with being a Coral Gables resident is one of the reasons many of his neighbors support the annexation. Coral Gables is known for strict code enforcement. Its residents have to go to city hall to get approval for exterior paint colors, for example. To some, that’s a nuisance. To others, like Shane, it’s part of the appeal.

“There are some eyesores in our neighborhoods that have not been addressed,” Shane said. “It’s to our detriment. To the value of our properties.”

The Gables Trailer Park is located in Little Gables. Coral Gables noted in its annexation proposal that the city is working closely with the park owner to redevelop the park into other types of housing and “to develop a mutually acceptable future master plan for the site that would meet all the state requirements and allow for a number of current park residents to remain on the site and occupy new housing units.”

There might be changes ahead for Gables Trailer Park, according to Coral Gables’ annexation proposal for the neighborhood known as Little Gables. Candace Barbot Miami Herald file photo

Property values in those neighborhoods, especially Ponce-Davis, are already high and continuing to go up as smaller homes are being bulldozed to make room for bigger, more modern homes. Miami-Dade County will lose approximately $3 million in tax revenue each year, according to the proposal documents. Officials from the county suggest the loss of revenue could impact emergency services provided by the county. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, according to the County’s published response, “strongly encourages that the city mitigate the revenue loss [$2.7 million] that MDFR will experience, should the area be annexed.”

The county is also asking that Coral Gables transfer jurisdiction of SW 88th Street from 57th Avenue to Old Cutler Road to the county, pay a pro-rata share of debt service on stormwater utility bonds, and execute a cost-share with the county for canal and drainage system maintenance.

Sue Kawalerski of the Riviera Neighborhood Association in Coral Gables says the association supports the annexation in general. However, there is some concern among current residents that emergency services will be strained.

“My understanding is the police force is not going to increase for a number of years. Will the annexation deplete the services that we enjoy currently? That’s a big question mark,” Kawalerski said. Coral Gables residents will never get the chance to vote on the issue.

“We were kind of left out of the process. It was basically a self-determination process on the part of the High Pines residents,” Kawalerski said. “We knew what was going on. If we had any major concerns we would have made that known.”

The county planning and advisory board will consider the proposal at a public meeting Monday, Dec. 3, at 10 a.m. It will then make its non-binding recommendation to the county commission.

According to county spokesperson Meighan Alexander, the county commission will meet sometime in March to vote on the proposals. Each will be voted on separately. Final approval would come from a simple majority of registered voters in each of the unincorporated areas.

Coral Gables residents are desperate. Cut-through traffic has gotten so bad that a pickup truck lost control and rammed into a house City planners and engineers are now considering different options.

This article has been updated to correctly reflect the nature of the Coral Gables Commission’s vote on annexation.