Whoever said, "the more things change, the more they stay the same" probably had the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners in mind.
As if the recent real estate market crash was not enough of a wakeup call for our elected leaders, commissioners recently voted to expand the Urban Development Boundary -- the line that separates agricultural and environmentally sensitive land from urbanized areas -- for a 9.9 acre commercial development that adds to the existing stock of vacant and undeveloped land in Miami-Dade County. Apparently, some county commissioners didn't get the memo that their love for suburban sprawl over the past decade led to the real estate market tanking, and to the bloated county government that they now seek to reign-in.
They must have overlooked the 2010 EPA report, "Growing for a Sustainable Future" that described an inventory of 16,140 acres of undeveloped land within the boundary. That amounts to 6 percent of the land within the urbanized area of Miami-Dade County -- currently vacant.
With so much land within the boundary unused why are commissioners adding more land to existing capacity? Is it that they want to further depress land values and our economic recovery? Some cite the need for jobs -- oh jobs! The latest excuse for any project to be shoved down our collective throats is the promise of jobs. Want jobs? Here's a stadium. Jobs you say? How about a humongous resort casino?
But, when it comes to the UDB amnesia sets in about the 16,140 acres of empty land within the UDB waiting for development. Let's put this in perspective -- 16,140 acres is approximately 25 square miles. The island of Manhattan -- from Battery City Park to 218 street -- is only 22.96 square miles. I would say that we have more than enough development capacity to last the next 100 years and beyond without having to touch the UDB -- and that's just with our undeveloped land. Take into account underdeveloped land and we should never expand the UDB again.
Critics argue that the line was never meant to be a solid boundary -- but a flexible delineation between the reach of county services and the agricultural and environmental lands beyond. There may be 16,000 acres of undeveloped land in the city -- but what about the residents of this suburban neighborhood? Don't they deserve access to strip malls and warehouses and outparcels within close proximity? What if they need closer services?
This particular property is already surrounded by developed residential land -- what is nine more acres of commercial land? Attorney for the project Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said, "You're not talking about some land that's out in the middle of nowhere. It's contiguous with the UDB." Of course this argument ignores an undeveloped 40 acre tract designated for commercial development, currently within the UDB, as well as the existing Hammocks mall, both within ½ mile of this site and with enough commercial capacity to serve the surrounding community for the next 30 years.
Commissioners might argue that they shouldn't dictate where development happens. If a willing developer wants to build a Publix on what is currently farmland -- so be it. Except they overlook the fact that in expanding the extent of county services, they put us all on the hook to provide those new areas with infrastructure, police, and life safety services. That single story Publix surrounded by a parking lot uses the same services as the eight-story mixed-use building in the urban core -- only it provides a fraction of the tax base forcing commissioners to make a choice between two evils: reduce services for the rest of the county, or raise tax rates.
Last week County Commissioner Xavier Suarez wrote a column for the Huffington Post that critiqued Mayor Gimenez' latest county budget saying that "absolutely nothing changed in the way the county does business."
The same day that column was published he voted to expand the UDB for an application that has been repeatedly criticized as unnecessary, and for which the county's own professional planning department recommended denial because of the reasons noted above. Our leaders cannot simultaneously seek to reduce the bloated bureaucracy of county government and at the same time expand the extent of the county services.
If Suarez and other commissioners want to break the business as usual attitude in county hall they should start with the UDB. The application has to come back to the commission for a final vote in the spring -- let's hope commissioners come to their senses and hold the line -- indefinitely.