The housing bust – the greatest collapse of real estate in Florida since the Great Depression – put Miami-Dade’s significant sprawl creators – I call them, the Great Destroyers – on hold. Eye On Miami chronicled the players and investments, and raised questions whether the biggest of lawn owners and partnerships – like those associated with US Century Bank – were allowed to mothball mortgage and principal payments while ordinary homeowners in south Florida were foreclosed by the thousands.
Although it is far too soon to call this a recovery, some of the biggest housing investors – like Lennar – have reaped windfall profits buying distressed mortgage debt for pennies on the dollar and are now cycling into cash through the same financing techniques with large banking institutions that, since the 2007 debacle, refloated their own balance sheets thanks to zero interest money from the Federal Reserve.
There is one development in particular we have paid attention to, called Parkland. Our archive feature, type in “Parkland” shows a history stretching back nearly half a dozen years. This area of Southwest Miami Dade had been primed as the next gold rush in sprawl development. In fact, one partnership even was bore the optimistic name, “Krome Gold”. The investor groups represent the top suburban sprawl lobbyists and champions. Their business models closely tracked the Papa Bear of the sprawl builders: Lennar.
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In short, the signs of life in the housing markets have re-primed the suburban sprawl pumps in Miami-Dade, damn the rising seas. Once again, like 2002 and 2003, the builders’ lobby is complaining that the professional staff projections for population growth are “too low”. Too low? Miami-Dade County has the highest rate of foreclosure in the nation. Why do we need to rezone more open space for sprawl?
The short answer is: they do it, because they can get away with it profitably.
What we should have learned from the boom and bust is that the costs of sprawl are born by every taxpayer, not just those willing to trade long commutes for their dream house.
And the costs are not just hard costs we can quantify: like those of providing water and wastewater pipes and treatment to new housing subdivisions. Under discussion, right now, at the county is how to meet the multi-billion dollar costs of catching up to the neglected wastewater infrastructure. It is quite an amazement to witness the efforts of vested interests and their representatives to “cut corners” in fixing our filthy mess under the banner of “taxpayer” rights. They were the ones – like those affiliated with former county commissioner Natacha Seijas—who diligently buried the costs of growth to satisfy their biggest campaign contributors from the Growth Machine: Sergio Pino, Ramon Rasco, to name just two.
There are other costs: of taxpayer funded bailouts of the builders; including the outrageous allowance of homebuilders like Lennar to retroactively apply losses during the crash against profits they made during the boom. There are less visible but even more tangible costs of sprawl: children left without supervision during hours families should be together because working mothers and fathers are stuck in cars on long commutes.
As a former chair of the local group of Sierra Club, I learned why it was so hard to find volunteers in Miami-Dade who could be counted on to “learn the ropes” of conservation activism.
Volunteers will not attend regular evening meetings. It is not because people are uninterested. It is because so many are spending hours commuting from homes to places of work. By the time the work day is over, including commutes, there is no time or energy to go to evening meetings.
In this way, sprawl robs vitality of communities and creates bunkers out of local government.
Those bunkers are fortified to protect the very same interests who are committed to the profits from building more and newer suburbs. If you imagine this is just an incidental consequence of progress, you are wrong: it is a well understood way to make sure that the appearance of a functioning democracy is exactly that; an appearance.
It is not a coincidence that within Miami’s suburbs and cities there is far more thought given to parking spaces than public parks or town centers where people might congregate. It is a choice.
All the roads to the huge costs of sprawl lead back to your elected leaders at the county.
It doesn’t matter if county commissioners represent inner city districts or inner ring suburbs or the ex-urbs. The outcome – shifting the costs of growth to taxpayers – has a visual everyone in Miami-Dade is familiar with: partially converted farmland surrounded by tract housing.
Your elected county commissioners vote – and appoint board members to vote on the Planning Advisory Board as their proxies – in the processes called growth management.
You may also think that the multi-billion dollar deficits that taxpayers have to fund, in order to have a relatively good quality of life, arise from nowhere.
None of these outcomes – including your tax bill – occur without decisions by committees and legislators you elect. Committees like the Planning Advisory Board or the MDX (Miami Dade Expressway Authority, that could soon approve the extension of SR 836 providing "relief" to stranded property owners like Lennar).
For more than thirty years, community activists and concerned citizens and environmentalists had another avenue: to state regulatory authority in Florida.
In other words, no matter how slim the chance to redress clear mistakes at the county level, there was an avenue of appeal at the state level and because there was an avenue of appeal, there was counter-pressure to the worst tendencies of elected officials to rezone whatever their campaign contributors wanted.
As a result, Florida’s builders and developers and realtors and lobbyists ceaselessly chipped away at protections offered by the state. Because they had so much money – and campaign contributions play a major influence – through Gov. Rick Scott they finally succeeded in 2011 in eliminating every trace of state supervision for growth.
Despite the evisceration of Growth Management law and the loss of professional planners at the state level, Florida’s counties are still required to come up with master plans for how they plan to grow. There are byzantine metrics through which changes are approved; and under withering political pressure, it is no surprise that the components of the Growth Machine always come up with numbers that justify their purposes whether the community agrees or not. Sometimes the county planners agree and sometimes they do not: this is the locus of community attention, today.
It takes very determined and committed citizen involvement to track these county-legislated rules and hearings, but every tax dollar you pay to Miami-Dade County in one way or another is an obligation rooted in decisions by elected officials how and where to approve construction and development. (Builders and developers contend that the fees they have to pay, cover the costs of government services. If this were the case, why are Miami-Dade taxpayers facing billions of dollars of delayed expenses to upgrade sewer treatment; so much money, in fact, that state representative Manny Diaz Jr. is proposing that Miami-Dade go back to flushing treated wastewater out of pipes into the ocean; a lousy practice was stopped for good reasons.)
Staff generated changes to the Comprehensive Development Master Plan come out of the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (the EAR), a thoughtful and very public process of reviewing, although few members of the public have the patience, commitment and time to attend. The staff- recommended changes are designed to update and improve all of the Comp Plan Elements.
Today—years beyond the worst crash in housing in Florida since the Great Depression-- , there is a lot to celebrate in what Miami-Dade county staff suggested. But in a sneak attack, without the benefit of a hearing process, Lennar introduced a change that staff had not seen nor had a chance to respond to.
In other words, despite positive recommendations to the land use plan, one powerful developer seized the opportunity to bush the boundaries, and if Lennar can do it; then count on every builder in Miami-Dade county figuring out their strategies to get what they want in terms of rezoning, whenever they want it. (to be continued)