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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
December 2017

Will West Aventura be county’s newest city?

FCityhood_1or more than a decade, residents of a 3.1-square-mile area west of Aventura have passionately debated forming their own city.

That debate may finally be heading to the ballot box.

On September 26, the Miami-Dade County Planning Advisory Board recommended that the Miami-Dade County Commission allow voters living between Aventura, North Miami Beach, I-95, and the county’s border with Broward to decide whether or not to incorporate. It’s the furthest this issue has gotten since 2003, when the first Northeast Miami-Dade “municipal advisory committee” was formed.

The county commission itself could vote as early as next month on whether to place the item on the ballot. “We’re shooting for January or February,” says Jorge Fernandez, coordinator of the county’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The name of this future city, which includes Highland Lakes, Enchanted Lake, Skylake, and several other neighborhoods, has yet to be determined, although the U.S. Census designates the area as the Ojus Census Designated Place (CDP), after a town that existed there between 1926 and 1936. Locals, though, reserve the name Ojus for the W. Dixie Highway corridor between a winding canal and Biscayne Boulevard.

Kenneth Friedman, a Highland Oaks resident who has sought cityhood for the past 14 years, says it would be fun to hold a contest to “see what most people think we should be called.”

One suggestion for a name Friedman often hears is West Aventura, after the municipality renowned for its high-end condos and efficient government. In fact, neighborhood activists in the Ojus CDP pleaded with Aventura to annex them in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and each time Aventura, which measures just 3.5 square miles, rejected the notion.

“I have no problem with it,” Friedman says, referring to the name West Aventura, “but I think Aventura might have a problem with it.”

Cityhood_2Aventura officials did threaten legal action 21 years ago, when pro-incorporation activists in Sunny Isles toyed with the idea of calling their future city Aventura Beach. It’s unclear if Aventura officials have become less protective of their name, especially with several businesses and development projects outside city limits using the “Aventura” moniker. Enid Weisman, Aventura’s mayor, did not return phone calls for comment.

Whatever its name, Friedman is sure this future city will have enough tax base to become a viable municipality at its current millage rate of 1.9283, or $1.93 for every $1000 of assessed property value. This is possible, he adds, thanks to recent development along the West Dixie Highway corridor. “The developers, giving their estimates, based on projections, think we could have a $600,000 budget surplus to up to a $4 million surplus,” he beams.

But Alicia Rook, a homeowner in the Greyknoll Lake neighborhood, fears that cityhood will mean more taxes for services the area already receives from the county at a bargain. “It’s expensive to have a city,” says Rook, who along with her husband Brian has been fighting incorporation for as long as Friedman has been advocating it.

But it isn’t just taxes that opponents fear. Manny Ashton, president of the Moorings in Skylake, points out that when Sunny Isles Beach became a city in 1996, it began enacting zoning codes that encouraged developers to demolish low-rise motels and replace them with towering high-rises. If such a thing happened to Skylake’s condos, Ashton says, the area’s senior citizens would have a hard time finding new homes. “Where are we going to go?” he asks. “Are they going to put us in box cars and ship us to the Everglades?”

Marc Hurwitz, president of the Skylake-Highland Lakes Homeowners Association, is sure the officials of a future city won’t enact legislation that will force out residents.

“Any government entity can’t just kick people out,” Hurwitz says. “Zoning is part of a political stance. They [Skylake residents] have to vote for people who’ll have their back. And if they don’t like them, vote them out.”

Cityhood_mapAnd speaking of voting, the Skylake-Highland Lakes Homeowners Association has endorsed the plan to allow the area’s citizens to vote on incorporation, Hurwitz says.

Hurwitz himself is in favor of cityhood because it would allow the region to take control of its taxes, set up code enforcement, beautify streets, and create a police force. As it stands now, the Ojus CDP has to share patrol units from the Miami-Dade Police Department with unincorporated pockets as far south as Barry University.

“That’s why we don’t see much patrolling around here,” says Hurwitz, a Highland Gardens homeowner. “If we had our own police department, we’d have our police patrolling our own area.”

Around 19,000 people live in the Ojus CDP. Non-Hispanic whites are the largest segment here, with 43.6 percent of the population, followed by Hispanics (43.3 percent), non-Hispanic blacks (8 percent), and Asians (3 percent).

The area’s median household income is $44,679 per year, lower than Aventura’s median household income ($60,222 per year) and higher than North Miami Beach’s ($38,387 per year). The median age of the Ojus CDP is 43 years, although 14.6 percent of the population is over 65.

Within this area, developers have pounced on the West Dixie Highway corridor. Last year, Gables Residential completed a 400-unit apartment complex called Gables Aventura at 20080 W. Dixie Hwy. Just north of Gables Aventura, H&M Development built Beacon Tower of Aventura, a 12-story office condo. At 19790 W. Dixie Hwy., CK Privé Group is building another 12-story office condo, Forum Aventura. And MG3 Development Group announced plans last year to replace a church with a six-story office and retail center at 18801 W. Dixie Hwy.

Other projects are in the works along the West Dixie corridor as well. In order to accommodate increased train traffic for freight and passengers, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is moving forward with construction of a vehicular flyover above the Florida East Coast train tracks at Ives Dairy Road/NE 203rd Street. FDOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz says construction is slated to start in February 2021, but first 26 nearby business sites must be demolished.

“Right-of-way acquisition is ongoing, but a list of potentially affected properties is not available at this time,” Ruiz-Paz states in an e-mail to the BT (for more on the controversy surrounding the proposed flyover, see “Overhead and Under Fire,” May 2016).

The county has its own ideas for trains within the West Dixie corridor. County planners have identified a ten-block area between NE 193rd Street, West Dixie Highway, NE 203rd Street, and NE 26th Avenue as the likely site of a commuter train station. So county planners pushed for Miami-Dade to retain zoning jurisdiction for this area. After some pushback from Friedman, the county’s Planning Advisory Board ruled that the future city, if it’s created, should determine the site’s zoning.

According to Jorge Fernandez of the county’s OMB, the area has enough of a tax base to run a city. In a September 26 report, Fernandez projected that the area will be able to collect about $9.2 million in revenue, including $2.2 million using the area’s current millage rate. (Other sources include permit fees, license fees, sales taxes, and franchise fees.)

Expenditures are expected to total $9.2 million as well, and include $4.9 million for police, $350,000 for a city council and a city manager, $250,000 for vehicles, and a $500,000 contingency fee. There’s also a $250,000 budget item for parks since the future city is expected to take control of Highland Oaks Park and Ojus Park. (The county will retain control of Greynolds Park.)

County Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes the Ojus CDP, thinks the financial outlook for a future city is rosier than the Fernandez report indicates. That’s why Fernandez and the mayor’s office are preparing a new report that includes the taxes from the new real estate projects projected there.

“We’re still waiting for the final numbers to come in,” says Heyman, who’s in favor of holding a referendum on cityhood.

But anti-cityhood activist Rook says the $9.2 million budget fails to account for an additional homestead exemption for people 65 years of age or older (which is as high as $50,000). The homestead exemption of $25,000, has no allowance for a disaster recovery fund in the event of hurricanes, and doesn’t include a mitigation fee of up to $1 million that the county charges unincorporated areas that become cities.

Rook also points out that other cities have far larger budgets than the one proposed for the Ojus CDP. Neighboring North Miami Beach’s budget, for example, was $131.2 million in September 2016, she says. Sweetwater, a city with a population similar to the Ojus CDP (20,000), has a budget of $17.5 million, and “they are going broke.”

Friedman counters that the future city can have a lean budget by simply hiring companies to perform most of its non-police services, much like neighboring Aventura, a city that only charges its property owners 1.7261 mills, the lowest tax rate in all of Miami-Dade County. As for a city hall, Friedman suggests that the future municipality can simply rent out office space.

Mary Lou Pfeiffer, a Greyknoll Lake homeowner, says she can understand the arguments of both sides, but if there’s a referendum, she’ll vote against incorporation. “I’m happy with the service I have from Miami-Dade County,” says Pfeiffer, a religious studies professor at Florida International University. “I’ve never had any problems.”

Mark Robson, an attorney living near the Enchanted Lake subdivision, understands both sides, too. But Robson, who previously served on the Northeast Miami-Dade municipal advisory committee and runs a blog called West of Aventura, thinks a city can allocate the area’s tax money more efficiently than the county. That’s why, if there’s a referendum, he’ll vote yes.

Robson still holds out hope that Aventura will annex his neighborhood, along with the rest of unincorporated Northeast Miami-Dade. He says he recently met with Aventura’s departing city manager, Eric Soroka, to “keep the channels of communication open.” He’s hopeful that the county’s fiscal analysis of the Ojus CDP will make the area more enticing for annexation.

“When we got the financial info, we were able to demonstrate that we could operate a city without a financial loss,” Robson says. “And with all the construction on the west side of the border, there’s more of a tax base, and that may make it more attractive for them.”

 

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