Coral Gables

Coral Gables wanted to demolish a trailer park and annex land. The county said no

Residents of areas of unincorporated Miami-Dade County wear matching anti-annexation shirts to protest requests from the city of Coral Gables to absorb Little Gables and High Pines/Ponce Davis. A committee of the County Commission rejected the proposals Wednesday.
Residents of areas of unincorporated Miami-Dade County wear matching anti-annexation shirts to protest requests from the city of Coral Gables to absorb Little Gables and High Pines/Ponce Davis. A committee of the County Commission rejected the proposals Wednesday. Miami Herald

As the men and women lined up in front of Pilar Almonacid complained about police response times that were too slow and cars that drove too fast through their manicured neighborhoods, the Little Gables resident said she feared the imminent demolition of her trailer park community would force her and more than 220 others into homelessness.

Through a translator, Almonacid, 56, explained how the proposed annexation of her slice of Miami-Dade County by the city of Coral Gables would prove more than a nuisance. It would threaten to leave her and her 86-year-old mother out on the street.

“What would happen to our family?” she asked members of the county commission’s Health Care and County Operations Committee on Wednesday. “What would happen to our mother, where would we take her?”

Moved by her plea — and concerned by the lack of detail provided by city officials about how they would relocate trailer-park residents — the committee voted unanimously to deny the city’s application to annex Little Gables and replace the trailer park at 825 NW 44th Ave. with high-density development, killing the proposal and preventing it from going to a vote by residents of the neighborhood.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez had recommended the board approve the application for voter consideration. The Planning Advisory Board approved it in June.

“When you’re telling me you’re displacing the people of most need in our community, you lost me,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. “I cannot in good faith move this forward solely based on that point.”

Cheers from residents opposed to the annexation of Little Gables, some dressed in matching anti-annexation shirts, drowned out groans from proponents of the move. Some of those supporters argued that the trailer park residents did not represent the majority of voters in Little Gables, a 205-acre area in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

“These guys, they’re elderly — I get it,” said 45-year-old Christine Lambert, a Little Gables resident who supported annexation, after the decision was announced. “But in there as well, the DEA is in there constantly. ... Is there meth being cooked in there as well? The representation of the people I don’t think accurately represents what’s going on in that trailer park.”

Lambert said she did not want to see the trailer park residents lose their homes, but said the city could present alternative forms of housing for them.

She spoke of wanting her children to be safe in her community and the frustration of sometimes waiting more than an hour for Miami-Dade police to respond to her home.

The annexation would have placed Little Gables under the jurisdiction of the Coral Gables police and its fire rescue agency rather than county agencies.

“Twice I’ve called 911 [and] they don’t know which jurisdiction I’m in,” she said. “So they transfer you back and forth and then no one ever shows up.”

Diaz later apologized to supporters of the annexation, telling them he would have likely voted in favor of the application if not for the bungling of the trailer park issue by officials who represented the Gables Wednesday.

“I was actually in a mood to let this one go,” Diaz said during the meeting. Upon hearing that the trailer park would be demolished, he said, “I cannot in proper conscience let it go forward at this time, due to that statement alone.”

In its annexation proposal submitted to the county, Coral Gables said it planned to rezone the trailer park land to accommodate multi-family residences, like apartments and townhouses, and businesses like daycares and assisted living facilities.

The city sought a “mutually acceptable” future master plan with the trailer park’s owner that would allow “a number of current park residents” to remain on the site in new housing units. The city’s proposal did not commit to a specific plan to relocate the residents, which concerned commissioners.

“They didn’t leave us any outs,” Diaz told supporters of the annexation after the meeting Wednesday. He again emphasized that he had been leaning toward voting in support of the annexation.

Earlier Wednesday, the committee unanimously denied a second annexation request from Coral Gables to absorb High Pines/Ponce Davis, advising the city to resubmit the applications separately due to differences of opinion between the residents of High Pines and Ponce Davis.

SE Gables Bike Day 1023_CLO Horizontal DB.JPG
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

The committee’s unanimous denials of both applications, which were submitted last year, proved to be a crushing blow for residents who had been fighting for annexation again after decades of false starts.

“I’m speechless,” said Karen Shane, president of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association. She said she had been working to push forward annexation for more than 15 years and that her predecessors going back about 40 years hatched the idea.

Asked what she would choose to do with the trailer park residents, Shane said she would hope that “the city or state would take care of them.”

Before dealing the Gables its second blow of the afternoon, the chairwoman of the committee, Sally Heyman, ripped City Manager Peter Iglesias after he testified that the Gables would “transition” from the trailer park in an “amicable way.”

He cited safety issues involving “disposable” housing in a hurricane-prone area.

“And it’s a hell of a lot safer for them to be in a trailer that they may reside in than homeless on the street with no residence,” Heyman interjected.

Both Heyman and Diaz mentioned the affordable housing crisis Miami-Dade County is facing, and said voting for the displacement of low-income residents was not feasible unless the city’s annexation plan contained a binding commitment to keep the housing at the trailer park land affordable to the tenants.

The county is the most expensive metro area in the U.S. for renters and among the costliest for home buyers.

Iglesias and an attorney representing the city explained that the Gables was in talks to develop high-density housing in the space that could transition trailer park residents to smaller, more structurally sound units.

“We’re thinking about it [but] it doesn’t exist,” Heyman said. “There’s no commitment.”

She said the annexation would eliminate “possibly the only option they have for housing,” and that denying the request would allow the residents to live “as is.”

“Whether they hit the lotto and choose to live in a trailer park or not, this is their residence,” she said. “This is a request that I cannot support, and I will make the motion to deny.”

Iglesias declined comment after the vote, other than to say the city’s annexation efforts were officially dead.

Little Gables, like the High Pines/Ponce Davis area, is an enclave surrounded by Coral Gables on three sides. Little Gables, which has 1,607 voters, shares a border with the city of Miami.

High Pines/Ponce Davis, which has 2,389 voters, shares a border with South Miami.

The Planning Advisory Board approved both annexation applications in 2018. As both areas are home to at least 250 voters, Coral Gables was required to submit petitions from 20 percent of the populations there.

If the board approved the applications, they would go before the voters of the affected unincorporated areas.

Coral Gables promised residents of Little Gables a new passive park and recreation programming, along with improved roads, landscaping, drainage and emergency services. Under annexation, the residents of both areas would receive police and fire rescue service exclusively from the city of Coral Gables, which promised shorter response times.

But it also would have increased taxes on residents there, as the city would have to pay for half of the net loss the county would experience with the loss of service area.

In High Pines/Ponce Davis, the average homeowner would pay about $946 extra per year, according to a memo from Gimenez to the County Commission. In Little Gables, they would pay $311 extra.

Residents of High Pines who attended the Wednesday meeting said the additional taxes and hidden fees from Coral Gables would hamstring the finances of older residents with fixed incomes. For example, waste collection in Coral Gables costs almost twice as much as it does in areas serviced by the county, according to the memo ($886 vs. $464 per year).

Robert Stewart, a retired flight attendant who lives in High Pines, said if the annexation passed, the Gables would price him out of his home.

“They want to increase our garbage rates,” he said, adding that he believes the city would have made him pay for installing sidewalks outside his home, trimming his hedges and replacing his chain-link fence. “It is just beyond our ability to pay.”

Stewart, 70, said he was cautiously optimistic as he left chambers Wednesday. The annexation had been defeated — at least for today.

“It’s a glimmer of hope,” he said.