Palmetto Bay

An FPL power plant once stood there. Homes may be next. But there is a problem.

An old Florida Power & Light power plant site along the South Dade shore is at the center of a tug-of-war between the village of Palmetto Bay and real estate developers.
An old Florida Power & Light power plant site along the South Dade shore is at the center of a tug-of-war between the village of Palmetto Bay and real estate developers. Florida Power & Light

One of the last prime waterfront properties in Miami-Dade is at the center of a tug-of-war between the village of Palmetto Bay and real estate developers.

CalAtlantic Homes, a luxury homebuilder, wants to build 600 homes and a private marina on the 69-acre site of the former Florida Power & Light Cutler Power Plant.

But Palmetto Bay council members, who have been battling over development along traffic-clogged Old Cutler Road, have put a moratorium on approving any new site plans for the FPL property. In addition to issues over the proposed density of the development, the debate is complicated by a report that says the land is polluted with arsenic and vanadium.

The land, which sits between Biscayne Bay and Old Cutler Road, was originally settled by William C. Cutler and used as a fruit and vegetable plantation. In the 1940s, an oil-fired power plant with on-site fuel oil storage was built there. It was later converted to burn natural gas, before being decommissioned in 2012.

The FPL site, nestled along quiet, tree-lined streets, was put up for sale in 2013 for $60 million. The same company in line to purchase the land today, CalAtlantic — formerly Standard Pacific Homes — tried to buy it then too. The company even submitted site plans to Palmetto Bay. But then the deal fell through when it was discovered the soil was contaminated.

The findings led FPL to conduct a study that lasted more than a year and found localized, high levels of arsenic and vanadium in the soil.

“It’s not necessarily a surprise for power plants like this. It’s a residual of the operations,” said Wilbur Mayorga, chief of the county’s environmental monitoring and restoration division. “Before anyone would be allowed to live in that area, or occupy a home or a business, the current or future owner is responsible for implementing the clean-up plan.”

CalAtlantic Homes, a national luxury homebuilder based in Virginia, remained interested in the property, which FPL now calls Cutler Plantation. When Palmetto Bay officials recently learned that the company was getting ready to submit a new site plan, the village council quickly prepared to vote on a 120-day moratorium on new site plans so it could rezone the property.

Most of the land is zoned industrial, although a small slice allows for single-family homes. The property is surrounded by homes, so residential development would be allowed on the FPL land. Council members will ultimately decide how many units will be allowed per acre.

Last week, CalAtlantic Homes rushed to submit a three-page proposal for 600 luxury units and a private marina before the moratorium vote. But the village did not accept the plan because CalAtlantic did not include payment of the fee for processing proposals. The plans had very little description and the illustrations little detail about what would be built.

“It was like someone doodled on a piece of paper,” said Councilman David Singer.

The council approved the moratorium, which was sponsored by Singer. During the next four months, public workshops will be organized to gather citizens’ input, he said.

“I didn’t want anyone to perceive that they can build hundreds and hundreds of apartments. I wanted to open the door to work with any developer, to make sure that there is proper ingress and egress to the site and that the residents are not pushed out,” Singer said. “That can only be done by taking the time to analyze the property and hear what the residents have to say.”

Meantime, CalAtlantic resubmitted its proposed site plan with the fee. The homebuilder proposed 388 condos, 167 town homes, and 45 single-family homes. The only roads that would lead into the community would be Southwest 152nd Street and 67th Avenue. Westminster Christian School and Alexander Montessori are both across the street.

It’s unclear whether CalAtlantic has a contract to buy the land or if it is contingent on the village approving its development plans. The developer did not return phone calls and FPL would not comment.

Joe Bier, a Palmetto Bay resident who lives near the former power plant, said he supports the 120-day hold because it gives the city time to zone it “appropriately.”

“We are looking to see estate homes be built there, not a condo tower, not apartments. The surrounding area cannot handle the density of multi-family homes,” Bier said. “The FPL site is a sizable piece of land in a well-established existing estate home community. A lot of us would like to see the buyer or developer develop single family homes conducive to the neighborhood.”

The nearest main artery would be Old Cutler Road, a roadway so congested that the Palmetto Bay council voted earlier this month to put parameters on future housing developments along the historic road.

The ordinance, which the commission tentatively approved 4-1 earlier this month, requires that any project with more than 30 residential units east of Old Cutler Road have a traffic congestion rating of a grade C or above, on a scale of A to F, in order to be approved. Some sections of the road are currently graded D to F during peak travel times.

The property is next to established communities like the Deering Bay Yacht and Country Club, the Royal Harbour Yacht Club, Kings Bay in Coral Gables and many estate homes nearby.

“And guess what? We are going to zone it now, and they’re going to have to live with whatever zoning we put on that piece of property,” Singer said.

But the soil contamination remains an issue. FPL’s study found average levels of of 9.22 milligrams per kilograms of arsenic and 101.3 milligrams per kilograms of vanadium. The acceptable level of arsenic in soil in Miami-Dade is 7 milligrams; for vanadium it’s 67 if the the development is residential. FPL said the pollution did not affect ground water.

While it is not uncommon to find traces of arsenic in Miami, where the soil is rich in marine sediments and fossils, the high levels pose serious health risks, according to county environmental officials.

Mayorga says clean-up procedures call for elevating the land with two feet of lime rock by February of 2019.

But one resident, Henry Clifford, says he doesn’t think it should be that simple.

“We need to order a secondary sampling. Why should we trust a study paid for and conducted by the company selling the land? We shouldn’t, otherwise it will come back the way they want it to,” Clifford said. “So do I trust the study? Of course not.”

Jane Bleakley, the homeowners association president for the Royal Harbour Yacht Club, an upscale townhome community southeast of the site, said that “architects could want to build anything there and I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“We are as much in the dark as anyone else,” Bleakley said. “What’s it going to be at the end of the day? A marina? A residential tower? Residents haven’t seen any site plans at all.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan