South Miami

South Miami commission finds workaround for 5-5 development vote requirement

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard and City Manager Steven Alexander at City Hall on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard and City Manager Steven Alexander at City Hall on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.

Mayor Philip Stoddard says he is sick of seeing important projects in South Miami blocked by one commissioner. On Nov. 8, residents agreed that one of those projects should move forward: a new City Hall.

Stoddard says that a required 5-out-of-5 commission vote for land development regulatory changes has made “complete governance virtually impossible.” He made progress against it when commissioners narrowly passed an ordinance defining the term “less restrictive” as it applies to voting requirements.

“In 2008, city voters passed the charter agreement,” Stoddard said. “It said that any changes to our land development regulations that made them less restrictive, required a unanimous vote of the commission. It was supported by about two-thirds of the voters at the time. It has been a problem. It has been a problem because one commissioner often votes ‘no’ on a reasonable item for unreasonable reasons.”

According to the city charter, five “yes” votes from the city commission are required to amend land-use and development regulations in any way to make them less restrictive. The land development code has a similar provision. Neither document defines the term “less restrictive.”

Under the new ordinance, an amendment is not “less restrictive” if it decreases density, intensity, floor area ratio or building height. It is also not “less restrictive” if it requires greater setbacks or building separation requirements, provides for less building coverage or lot coverage, or adds a use to a zoning district that has the same or a lower intensity than any of the existing uses.

The city commission can now determine by three “yes” votes that a proposed amendment is not covered by the 2008 conditions and should be treated as less restrictive.

Stoddard offered an example of why the current system doesn’t work:

“[Semi]-trucks are often forced to unload on the streets,” Stoddard said. “So we wanted to make it possible for people to bring those trailers into a garage to unload so they wouldn’t block the street. Sounds like an improvement, right? To do that, our code currently says that height can’t exceed 14 feet, but you can’t get a truck into a garage with a 14-foot ceiling. You need 18 feet. So let’s give them the flexibility, without letting them change the outside of the building to make it higher. Just let them rearrange the floors inside the building so they can get trucks off of the street. [Commissioner] Gabriel Edmond voted no. He didn’t say why. He didn’t need to say why. He just voted no.

“As a consequence, developers have been required to keep the first-floor height no higher than 14 feet inside the building and trucks now are going to have to unload on the street, blocking traffic,” Stoddard says. “But one person for any reason or no reason at all can hold up reasonable resolutions or reasonable ordinance changes. I find it absurd and destructive. It’s bad for the city.”

At the meeting, Edmond explained: “We’ve been debating this for awhile,” he said. “We’ve had different viewpoints. I didn’t agree with the majority of you up here, but you put it on the ballot. I was prepared to accept what the voters came up with, even if I didn’t like it. The voters decided that they wanted to keep it. I think when we do these kinds of things; we promote cynicism, which isn’t really good. Because people have elected us all up here, to really try to represent their interest. And this certainly goes to the heart of five out of five.”

Stoddard wants to purge the 5-5 requirement. Instead, the city put it up to the voters to make the requirement a 4-5 commission vote when it came to enact less restrictive land use and development regulations for affordable and workforce housing in the CRA area on the Madison Square property. But 52 percent of voters denied that proposal.

A proposal that wasn’t denied was a new City Hall. Seventy-two percent of voters agreed that the city’s current digs are inefficient and outdated. They voted for the city to use the value of the existing library and/or City Hall and police station property to fully fund, at no cost to the taxpayer, the construction of an environmentally sound and more efficient city hall, police station and/or library and other improvements to the city. Those improvements include sewer connection for residences in low-lying neighborhoods currently on septic tanks, park improvements, and tax reduction.

Lynx Development Group was the first entity to offer a proposal on the property at 6130 Sunset Dr., with $15 million on Feb. 16. Since then, City Manager Steven Alexander has seen eight proposals from five entities.

“The commission and the residents had wanted for a long time for the citizens to have a chance to vote on whether or not the city did the city hall project,” Alexander said. “The commission decided to honor that and went out for the straw ballot to see what the voting public actually wanted them to do.”

Some parties are offering straight cash, while others are offering land swaps with no monetary exchange, but would design and build new city buildings.

Longtime projects like affordable housing at Madison Square could still hinge on all five commissioners being in agreement.

“Every time you propose an ordinance, that changes the land development code, you get stuck with the most restrictive version of it,” Stoddard said. “If you make it overly restrictive to begin with, you can’t back off and make it less restrictive later on if you found you overdid it. Because big things can only be changed by unanimous vote and there is always one person who will vote no against anything. At least four different times that I can count, Madison Square has been blocked by a single vote.”