The Biscayne Times

Tuesday
Dec 11th
Northeast County Rejects Cityhood PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
December 2018

High turnout, close vote may presage future efforts

FCityhood_1or more than 15 years, residents living within a 3.3-square-mile, unincorporated region in northeast Miami-Dade, just west of Aventura and north of North Miami Beach, have been debating whether to become a new city. It’s a question that’s been examined by county consultants, county staffers, and a couple of municipal advisory boards.

Now the question of incorporation, which had turned neighbor against neighbor, has been settled in a referendum held on November 6.

It’s no. By a whisker.

No votes: 3148.

Yes votes: 3047.

The incorporation effort failed by a mere 101 votes.

For a midterm election, the referendum saw a high turnout, with 42.8 percent of 14,463 registered voters participating.

“I’m okay, life goes on,” says Kenneth Friedman, a 45-year resident of Highland Lakes and a longtime advocate for cityhood. “Everybody is kind of shell-shocked a little bit. It’s too early to discuss alternatives [to cityhood]. It’s hard to assess where the county is, so I have no idea what the future is.”

Alicia Rook, a Greyknoll Lake homeowner and opponent of cityhood, believes the future will be much like the present, with the county providing services at the affordable property-tax rate of $1.93 for each $1000 of assessed property value.

Cityhood_2

That is the same tax rate charged to everyone living in unincorporated neighborhoods throughout Miami-Dade County -- a rate lower than 32 of the 34 incorporated cities in the county: Neighboring Aventura charges the lowest tax rate, $1.76 for every $1000 of assessed property value. Doral charges $1.90.

Rook is relieved that her neighborhood will remain unincorporated. “It’s been a long road,” she says, “and thanks to everyone involved -- all the people who were with us, people who are no longer with us. They were an inspiration for all of us.”

Rook and other anti-incorporation activists insist they’re getting excellent services from the county, especially the Miami-Dade Police Department. They feared that a yes vote would mean higher taxes that the area’s elderly, many of whom live in aging condominiums along Miami Gardens Drive, couldn’t afford.

But Marc Hurwitz disagrees. He is president of the Sky Lake & Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association and a resident of the gated Highland Lakes subdivision. Hurwitz thinks the area’s $1.3 billion tax base is more than adequate to support a city at its current tax rate.

“Being a city would have meant having dedicated police, an improved park, beautification, traffic enhancements, being able to apply for grants, transportation for seniors,” Hurwitz says. “There are so many things that would have benefited with incorporation. It’s a real shame it didn’t pass.”

Nearly a century ago, much of this unincorporated area was part of a municipality called Ojus. Founded in 1926, Ojus was dissolved by the state legislature in 1936, when town officials lacked the tax base to balance the city’s budget.

Cityhood_3By the early 2000s, Friedman and some other local activists clamored loudly for cityhood. With the help of then county Commissioner Gwen Margolis, the Miami-Dade government authorized the formation of a northeast “municipal advisory committee” in 2003 to explore the feasibility of cityhood.

The Northeast MAC went dormant in 2006, after county officials imposed a moratorium on the creation of new cities. When the moratorium was lifted in 2012, the Northeast MAC, with Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman’s support, was reconstituted and the cityhood question was finally placed on the ballot this year.

While the tally was very close, the anti-incorporation side won in all seven Northeast MAC precincts.

One of the most lopsided votes took place in Precinct 108, an area north of Miami Gardens Drive that includes older condominiums like the Moorings and Jade Winds. A total of 1304 people voted no, while just 423 voted yes, a difference of 881 ballots.

Hurwitz complains that the anti-cityhood side won by using fear. “They convinced everybody that their taxes were going to go up,” he asserts. “They did a disservice to the community.”

Kenneth Friedman adds condo residents not only believed taxes would increase if a city were created, they also feared that developers would swoop in, buy up the old condos, force out residents, and build luxury high-rises. As a result, Friedman says, many condo associations wouldn’t allow pro-incorporation activists into their buildings to speak with residents.

“Unfortunately, taxes would not have gone up and services would have gone up if we had become a city,” Friedman says, adding that no one on the pro-incorporation side advocated for redevelopment of the older condos.

Cityhood_4Anti-incorporation activists maintain that a new municipality would likely need to raise taxes in order to build a city hall, pay for a city manager, and undertake infrastructure improvements. Most of all, they didn’t trust the promises of those pushing for cityhood, says Boris Moralis, who has lived in the Enchanted Lake subdivision for 20 years. Moralis claims that many cityhood proponents aspired to run the future city themselves as elected officials. “We don’t trust people who seek power and control,” he says.

Charles Baron, an attorney who resides in the Greynolds Park Condominium, also campaigned against cityhood. Baron points out that a new city could seek the replacement of older condo buildings by passing zoning that encourages new high-rises. After all, Baron says, that’s exactly what happened in Sunny Isles Beach, where the old beachfront motels were knocked down and replaced by pricey skyscrapers. “I just had a very strong feeling that developers were behind this push for a new city,” he says.

If developers were involved, they didn’t contribute much money to the one political action committee devoted to the pro-incorporation cause: Yes to City. That PAC went into the election with $45,824. Businesses and individuals identifying themselves as “Realtor,” “developer,” or “contractor” gave a mere $850.

The majority of contributions made to Yes to City came from people living in the Northeast MAC area. The Sky Lake & Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association kicked in $16,000 to Yes to City. Eighteen officers and directors of the same group gave another $8013, including $2000 from former state prosecutor Jacci Seskin, $1000 from Marc Hurwitz, $1000 from footwear manufacturing CEO Max Lichy, and $1000 from Robert Weisblum, husband of former North Miami Beach city manager Roslyn Weisblum. Citizens for the Incorporation of Northeast Dade, an unregistered group run by pro-city activists, gave another $2013. Kenneth Friedman contributed $450.

Baron says area residents also received at least one flier from each of two other organizations: Residents First Miami-Dade and Miami-Dade County Working with You.

Residents First Miami-Dade paid the Campaign Superstore Inc. $12,650 for mailers. The Campaign Superstore, which also received $978 from Yes to City for signs, is owned by Charles Safdie. A political consultant who used to be the executive director of the Republican Party of Dade County, Safdie is now vice chairman of the Area 2 Northeast Miami-Dade Community Council, which advises on zoning issues related to unincorporated areas in northern Miami-Dade County.

The flier paid for by Residents First Miami-Dade featured Safdie as a community councilman, extolling the virtues of cityhood, claiming that it would enable the hiring of more police, the creation of a free shuttle that senior citizens can use “for shopping or to visit their doctor,” the improvement of parks, and incorporation would give the region “a seat at the table” in issues dealing with traffic.

Safdie couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman is the chairwoman of Miami-Dade County Working with You. She says her organization’s participation in the incorporation referendum was limited to paying for a single mailer that featured a report by PMG, an independent consultancy hired by the county, which explained that the unincorporated area did have the tax base to support a municipality without raising property tax rates.

The flier did not advise which way residents should vote, Heyman notes, adding, “I am a firm believer in working with facts.”

Rook and her husband, Brian, formed Say No Inc., a political action committee dedicated to defeating the cityhood referendum. According to Baron, who is the PAC’s registered agent, Say No Inc. raised $5089 before the election and spent $4489 on a couple of fliers.

The attorney is proud of the fact that while the pro-incorporation side had “ten times as much money,” his fellow anti-cityhood activists still managed to win. “What made up for the huge difference in expenditures was the grassroots work. Not only door-to-door stuff, but also [Say No Inc.] held a number of forums,” Baron says.

Marc Hurwitz, who favored incorporation, believes this referendum puts a permanent end to cityhood. “Our understanding was that this was a one-shot deal,” he says. “That’s what we were told by Commissioner Heyman.”

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Heyman says the Northeast MAC could be activated again if there’s still a desire for cityhood.

Mark Robson, an Enchanted Lake resident in favor of incorporation who runs a blog called “West of Aventura,” worries that pieces of the Ojus area may be annexed by neighboring Aventura and North Miami Beach before residents have a chance to vote on the issue again, if they ever desire to.

Whatever happens in the future, Commissioner Heyman says she’s accomplished her main task, which was to give the unincorporated condos and subdivisions a right to choose their own destiny.

“I did my best to give information and I’m glad people got the chance to vote,” says Heyman, who lives in North Miami Beach. “I’m just glad that finally, after all this time, we brought it to closure.”

 

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