The small town of Bay Harbor Islands could soon experience a growth spurt — a vertical one.
On Nov. 6, voters will weigh in on a ballot measure to allow taller buildings on the tips of Bay Harbor’s East Island — and two developers are spending tens of thousands of dollars to get them to vote yes.
The proposed charter amendment would change the town’s maximum property height from 75 feet to 120 feet, or 11 stories, but only for six plots of land. The developers of one of those plots — an empty lot — are the amendment’s driving force.
Last November, developers Valerio Morabito and Ugo Colombo bought the former Bay Harbor Continental site for $20.5 million, then razed the building. Now they want to put a 120-foot-tall luxury condo tower there.
Of the other parcels, three have buildings taller than 75 feet (including one that sits on two parcels), built before voters set that limit in 2002. Should one of those buildings be damaged by a hurricane or other disaster, it could not be rebuilt to its current height under the law as it exists. A fourth has a building under the current height limit.
But the most immediate beneficiaries would be Morabito and Colombo, who designed a 54-unit residential tower for the site. They argue that the building would be slimmer and have more space around it than a building adhering to the current height limits.
“You always try to build the best possible building for the site,” Morabito said. “This was the best legal approach to do what we wanted to do.”
Neisen Kasdin, their lawyer and a former Miami Beach mayor, drafted the ballot measure, Morabito said. Through BH Investment, the company used to purchase the lot, the developers gave $50,000 to political action committee Bay Harbor Vision. They are the sole donors to the group, which hired a campaign consultant and canvassers to advocate for the measure.
The town has 6,000 residents, about half of whom are eligible voters. In the 2014 midterm elections, Bay Harbor Islands had a 45 percent turnout rate, with 1,365 votes cast. At that turnout rate, the developers would be spending about $37 per voter.
Currently, the charter says a majority of voters must approve any structures taller than 75 feet. If the amendment passes, exceeding that height limitation on any of the six plots would require approval by the Town Council — but not voters.
“The amendment basically goes back to the original founder’s — Shepard Broad’s — vision,” Town Manager Ron Wasson said. “Some properties were made to be larger so they could actually have larger buildings on them.”
But some residents say enough is enough, and they don’t want any more large buildings. “The big ones are already an eyesore,” said Paola Levy, who lives in the Sereno condos.
Late this spring, the development team met individually with Mayor Stephanie Bruder and Council Members Jordan Leonard and Kelly Reid about the building proposal.
“We have worked diligently to create an exhaustive communication campaign and craft a strong community benefit package. We are confident our message will win us the majority of the votes,” Morabito wrote to Bruder in a July 11 email, obtained by a public records request. “You have been a friend of our project and an honest and powerful exponent for the community.”
At a special council meeting on July 19, the town approved the ballot question, written by the developers’ attorney rather than city staff, for the Nov. 6 election.
“Who writes it, I think, is less important than the form it takes,” Wasson said. “We feel that it is neutral.”
Teri D’Amico, who lives in the Mediterranean apartments, said she takes issue with the seeming closeness between developers and the Town Council. “The council continues to allow developers’ attorneys to rewrite our zoning code to benefit themselves and not the residents,” she said.
There are four buildings on the six tracts of land mentioned in the ballot question. Three are taller than the charter allows, because they predate the 2002 amendment that set the 75-foot limit.
Assistant Town Attorney Frank Simone said the new amendment also addresses a concern the council has had since the 2002 height limits passed: What if a natural disaster destroys those three buildings? Reconstruction has to follow what the charter says at the time, Simone said, so this ballot measure would enable those buildings to be rebuilt to their current height if they were destroyed.
“It was something in the council’s mind,” he said. “God forbid one of these buildings goes down in a hurricane.”
Also included in the amendment is the Bay Harbor Club, a three-story co-op also known as the “Dexter” building, because the TV series was filmed there.
“The Bay Harbor Club is not opposed to the charter amendment,” said co-op president Dale Northrup. “Having the extra availability for better usage of the land is a good thing.”
The 24-unit co-op, next door to the vacant lot, sits on land owned by descendents of Shepard Broad, founder of the town, which sits just west of Bal Harbour. In July, Broad’s grandson, Daniel Bussel, and niece Anita Broad sent the town government a letter of support for the amendment.
Clashes between developers and preservationists are all too familiar to Bay Harbor residents. The town is known for its historic MiMo architecture, but a luxury-condo boom has placed several of those mid-century buildings in the path of the bulldozer. In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the east island — one of the town’s two islands, connected by the Broad Causeway — to a list of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country.
The Bay Harbor Continental — which, like the Bay Harbor Club, was designed by noted MiMo architect Charles McKirahan — was designated historic in 2015 by the Miami-Dade County preservation board. It was the first time a Bay Harbor building received official historic status. But county commissioners overturned the ruling, paving the way for the sale of the co-op.
A previous version of this story gave incorrect information about who demolished the Bay Harbor Continental. It was demolished by its current owners, Valerio Morabito and Ugo Colombo.