Around 8 a.m., Eric Tullberg hops on his bike, straps on his maroon-striped helmet and heads toward Old Cutler Road, a major Palmetto Bay artery.
Tullberg, a Palmetto Bay resident for three decades, is one of thousands who uses the historic road daily. He dashes down the bike path at about 12 miles per hour. Next to him, commuter traffic is at a standstill.
“I’m going faster than the cars riding up Old Cutler,” Tullberg, 68, said. “The cars during rush hour are bumper to bumper. There’s no way this development can make it worse than what it already is.”
On his right are the Palmetto Bay Village Center and 80 acres next to it that are slated to one day include 485 multi-family homes. The property also features a 300,000-square-foot business complex and 40 acres of wetland and foliage. It is next to a public library and a lagoon that is home to crocodiles, bass and crabs.
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This property is at the center of an angry dispute that got even uglier after the Palmetto Bay Council approved development rights on it.
A lawsuit was filed. An ethics investigation was launched. Nasty political advertisements and mass emails were sent. Opposing videos went viral online. Posts appeared on Facebook about how the vote has polarized the village.
Council meetings got tense. Vice Mayor John Dubois, whose $4.6 million bayfront mansion is just feet away and who is running for re-election this year, has been the project’s most vocal opponent. Mayor Eugene Flinn, who has been a big proponent of the donated green space and is not up for re-election until 2018, has been the development’s biggest advocate.
But plans for Palmetto Bay Village Center have not rattled residents nearly as much as they have polarized city officials and political activists.
“I think the overall negative communications coming from our own reps has a divisive impact on our community,” said Erica Watts. “As a resident who respects the council, I would hope that they would respect each others’ vote and move forward toward new initiatives to unify our village.”
Palmetto Bay, a small municipality incorporated in 2002, has about 24,000 residents. Hugged by Pinecrest and Cutler Bay, it’s known for its bay vistas, luxurious estates and large parks. The Village Center property includes one of the town’s few remaining pieces of vacant, buildable land.
Developer Scott Silver owns 80 acres at Village Center that sit on the edge of Biscayne Bay. To the west are blocks and blocks of single-family homes.
In 2008 the land was zoned for 100 condos, 300 senior housing units and a hotel. In May, at Silver’s request, the Palmetto Bay Council amended the development rights to allow him to build 485 town homes — no hotel, no housing specifically for seniors. Silver agreed to donate 40 acres of rock pineland and wetlands along the bay to the city for a park.
The 18 percent increase in approved units sparked controversy. Some residents complained that the already congested street would get more bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour.
The village hired a consultant to conduct a quick analysis of Old Cutler Road between Southwest 168th Street and 184th Street. Because Silver already had the right to build about 400 units, the changes won’t significantly impact traffic woes, the consultant concluded.
Old Cutler Road has a capacity of 21,000 daily trips, said Joe Corradino, who led the team of municipal and engineering consultants who did the study. Currently, about 17,000 daily trips are taken, giving the road room for about 4,000 more cars every day, he said.
Many residents are pleased that the city is getting land for a park. More than half of the acreage was once set for development; now it will remain green space. The park will be passive — that is, it won’t be built up with major amenities. It will have walking and biking trails with an emphasis on preserving scarce pine rockland.
For some residents, including Tullberg, the bicyclist, the benefits of the park offset any increase in traffic caused by the new homes.
“The horse is already out of the barn. There are large areas to the south of us that will continue to develop. Even the 485 units, which will take years to be developed, is small compared to the potential number of homes that will be constructed to the south of us, which will bring in traffic,” said Tullberg, who lives less than half a mile from the Village Center.
“I’d rather have it be forever a park than the possibility of that green space being developed. I’m willing to take the additional density in exchange for pine rockland. There’s so little of it left.”
However, Brenda Storch, who lives two blocks off Old Cutler, says the whole situation is “a joke.”
“When I first bought my house two decades ago, the council said they weren’t going to build on the land around me. Before I knew it, I had a big school less than 50 feet away from my house,” Storch said.
“I’m sure the village will eventually build there. I don’t believe them. The donated green space makes no difference. What difference does a little bit of land make to the congestion we have all over?”
Increased traffic, she said, affects her well-being. “I had a heart attack about 20 years ago. They came and took me to the hospital. Today I would never get there.”