Elections

In November election, Miami Springs seeks voter approval to pursue annexation. Again.

For 16 years, Miami Springs has tried to acquire part of the business district around Miami International Airport. It has fought with business owners who didn’t want to be part of the city and with other municipalities that wanted a share of the land for the property taxes it would bring in. The battle has involved ballot measures, lawsuits, a negotiated agreement with other cities and an agreement to remove a key piece of property from the deal.

Now the city has put a question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters to approve moving ahead with the annexation of 1.59 square miles of commercial and industrial land that would bring in enough new taxes to allow the city to substantially cut its property tax rate.

But even if the measure passes, the deal won’t be done. Voter approval would reactivate a pair of lawsuits that have been put on hold, and the annexation would still require a lengthy process to gain county approval.

The land in question amounts to only 1.59 square miles and has only 10 residents.

Taxes from the area would generate $4.7 million, according to the city’s most recent estimates, and would allow the city to lower its tax rate from $7.35 to $4.94 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The revenue would enable Miami Springs to hire more police officers, improve roads and beautify the city, City Manager William Alonso said.

Some business owners in the annexation area oppose the effort, saying that it would raise their taxes and that they are content with their county-provided services. They don’t get a vote, though, because the area has fewer than 250 residents and is less than 50 percent residential, and the county code doesn’t require approval from people in such a sparsely populated area.

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The city of Miami Springs, bordered by red, wants to annex the unincorporated area bordered in blue. The Florida East Coast Rail Yard is not included.

Last fall, eight property owners sued Miami Springs and the county over the annexation. Their complaint argues that the most recent application wasn’t approved by voters and wasn’t a new application as requested by the county. The complaint also claims that the annexed area isn’t contiguous to the city — a Miami Springs charter requirement — except for a narrow band of land at the northern end. And it argues that the annexation would violate county code by creating a new “enclave,” the thin sliver of land between the city and the annexation area. That enclave consists of the Florida East Coast Railway’s Hialeah Rail Yard, which was removed in response to FEC’s protests years ago.

“The area to be annexed is not appropriate for annexation under the county’s rules,” said Christopher David, an attorney representing the property owners. “It’s an effort by the city of Miami Springs to raise revenue off of the backs of non-residents.”

This February, a Miami Springs resident who owns property in the annexation area sued the city on similar grounds.

Some of the same plaintiffs sued Miami Springs in 2013 over the annexation, but the lawsuit was dismissed because the application died in committee.

Alonso said annexation would ultimately benefit those business owners. “Even though their taxes may go up a bit, we’re planning to improve services to that area,” he said.

Both lawsuits have been stayed pending the results of the Nov. 6 election. In an interview with the Herald, Dan Espino, an attorney representing Miami Springs, said the lawsuits are attempts to derail the annexation. (Espino, a Miami Springs resident and former councilman, said he supports annexation.)

If voters authorize the annexation this November, the city’s years-long effort won’t be over: The Miami-Dade County Commission has the final say. To make matters more confusing, the multi-step annexation process means plenty of opportunities for the proposal to be halted or to fizzle out.

Both the county’s office of management and budget and its planning advisory board review annexation applications, then the planning board and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez give recommendations to the County Commission. Once a proposal passes a vote by the government operations committee, the full commission makes its decision in a public hearing.

“It’s a lengthy process,” said Jorge Fernandez, coordinator of the county’s office of management and budget. “Each area’s unique.”

On why annexation is taking so long, Espino, the Miami Springs attorney, said: “It’s a political decision, not an administrative one.”

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Warehouses under construction off Northwest 36th street and 67th Avenue near Miami Springs’ southern boundary. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Miami Springs began its annexation effort in 2002 and spent $283,000 over the next decade on related expenses. Its initial attempts were stymied by conflicting annexation applications from Virginia Gardens, Medley and Doral. The four municipalities reached a compromise in 2009 and resubmitted applications.

In a special election that year, 76 percent of Miami Springs voters approved the annexation — as well as a city charter amendment that would require a majority vote to authorize annexations.

More hurdles were yet to come. The following year, owners of the Florida East Coast Railway’s Hialeah Yard told the county they objected to Miami Springs’ annexation, according to a report by the county’s office of management and budget. The city amended its application to exclude the rail yard.

“We agreed since that was a key factor in advancing our application,” Alonso wrote in an email to the Herald.

In 2013, the revised application died in the County Commission’s land use and development committee, when commissioners voted 2-2 on advancing the application to a vote by the full commission. Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson voted yes, Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Xavier Suarez voted no and then-Commissioner Lynda Bell was absent.

The tie vote effectively served as a denial of the application. The county concluded that Miami Springs must file a new application to continue pursuing the annexation, according to a 2015 letter written by Cynthia Johnson-Stacks, assistant county attorney.

Miami Springs resubmitted its application in June 2017. This March, the city council voted unanimously to place the item on the Nov. 6 ballot and, by doing so, resolve some of the issues in the two pending lawsuits. But if voters say yes to the annexation, prompting the county to proceed with its review, the two lawsuits against the city still stand.

“These things don’t happen overnight,” Alonso said.

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