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Miami Beach residents want to stem tide of develop

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By Noaki Schwartz

Miami Bureau

Posted March 7 2004

Residents of Miami Beach, who seven years ago won a hard-fought battle to pass an initiative giving voters the final say on waterfront projects, are again headed to the polls to try to stop big development.

Though Mayor David Dermer, who helped lead the anti-growth forces, says that residents prevailed in 1996 despite being outspent by developers $2 million to $20,000, some residents say it is clear to them that development in Miami Beach is out of control. The reason: the plans for too many huge projects were grandfathered in, exempting them from public control, and leading to a canyon of new condos.

"Ringing your waterfront with a wall of massive towers is damaging to the livability of the city," said Mark Needle, co-founder of the slow-growth group Save Miami Beach. "It's not compatible with a low-rise historic district.

On Tuesday, residents will get another opportunity to cap development by voting on another charter amendment that would require a referendum on citywide projects that increase density beyond current allowances. Developers who want to build a project that exceed allowable limits would have to convince voters of its merits.

A week later, on March 16, Surfside residents will go to the polls to vote on a similar charter amendment.

Surfside Mayor Paul Novack said that unlike Miami Beach, his city's voters have a chance to stop the skyscrapers before they even start.

"If we can protect hometown character and community in Surfside now, then generations down the road my grandchildren can enjoy the scale and hometown quality I did," said Novack, adding that there is little opposition to the measure.

Novack gauges quality of life by how much skyline he can see in Surfside, a seaside town of squat buildings tucked between cities of towering condo complexes. In his 12 years as mayor, the city has granted zero variances and there are no buildings over 12 stories in Surfside, he said.

"What we've proven is that you can have positive economic development without selling out a community's future," Novack said. "Once you build what I call `monuments to greed,' they're forever."

The formula has been so successful that other cities like Deerfield Beach, Vero Beach and Cocoa Beach are looking into what Surfside has done, he said. Residents are becoming keenly aware of over development in a state expected to have 25 million residents by 2030. Florida ranked first in housing growth in the nation in the 1990s.

But the effort to slow growth in beach communities is not limited to the Sunshine State. For decades residents of coastal cities around the country have proposed similar slow growth initiatives, often in reaction to developers and pro-growth city councils.

In California, about 1,000 of these measures have been proposed since the 1960s. For example, in Newport Beach, a tony seaside community blanketed by development, residents passed such an initiative in 2000 amid threats that it would overburden the city with expensive elections and choke city revenue.

When Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach County environmental attorney heard about the efforts in California, she wondered if she could successfully push through a statewide initiative in Florida that would let voters regulate land use.

In 2003, she helped form Florida Hometown Democracy, launch a Web site and a petition drive for a constitutional amendment to ban land-use changes statewide without a referendum.

The opposition organized just as swiftly. Calling themselves the Foundation for Preserving Florida's Future, critics of the statewide initiative worry that it will harm the construction industry and drive up the cost of housing.

Members like the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties say cities will wind up spending to get items on the ballot instead of on schools, roads, police and fire. The proposal to control growth also will spark legal challenges, said George Pincus, vice president of public affairs for the group's South Florida chapter.

"There are problems with it on a number of levels," said Pincus, a real estate attorney in Boca Raton. "The economic impact is that if you have ballot box zoning you're going to bring development to a halt. If you bring development to a halt, you're going to significantly impact jobs and lose tax revenue. And if you're not building, you're not going to attract new business to Florida."

Blackner disagrees and says it's time to let voters decide since "local government is often an adjunct of the development industry." She was hoping to get the initiative on November's general election ballot, but said last week that she was not optimistic as advocates of the measure are short thousands of signatures needed for a review by the state Supreme Court and to get it on the ballot.

Still, she applauds the upcoming ballot measures in Miami Beach and Surfside, and plans to keep going. She sees the efforts to limit growth in Surfside, and Novack's leadership, as a spark of hope.

"He's obviously studied the issues and realized that growth for growth's sake comes at a big price," she said. "It's a gem of good government in a sea of corruption and shows that people can make a difference."

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I think Miami is out of control too. Highrises don't belong on the beach. They cast cool, long shadows blocking the sun, and ruin the whole reason for going to the beach. They also lead to over crowding of the beach and loss of a natural setting. It beoimes like a mall on the beach.

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I was recently in Miami Beach, and it was CROWDED! I hope they can regulate all the new development. There are even towers coming up away from the oceanfront. All the people made traffic awful. Maybe the planned light-rail system will help. But still, there's too many units on one island!

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