I wish there were some way to hard-wire the facts of suburban sprawl-- and how it wrecked the economy-- to the citizens inhabiting the sad tent city outside County Hall, Occupy Miami.
Yesterday's decision at the County Commission related to moving the Urban Development Boundary was preliminary, perfunctory and perfectly illustrated the economic forces at work, destroying taxpayer value through the piecemeal subjugation of sensible planning to speculators. All those occupiers should have been upstairs in County Hall, paying attention and learning how to detect snake oil sold as "jobs!"
I haven't been to a County Commission meeting since the end of the Seijas era. Yesterday's meeting showed that in key respects, nothing has changed: democracy serves a failed model of growth and economic development.
During the building boom years, phalanxes of land use lawyers and lobbyists organized to move the Urban Development Boundary. Yesterday two were there, and one-- Miguel Diaz de la Portilla-- recited the property owner's reasons to move the line expertly as if by memory. At least for some, on the side of moving the line, the arguments are hard-wired.
In my brief testimony (that had Commissioner Joe Martinez searching for his stopwatch), I asked the commissioners to consider showing taxpayers of Miami-Dade County that the crash of housing markets-- the worst since the Great Depression-- they understood that the costs of suburban sprawl needed to be tamed, now. Now, I offered (after nearly 20 years trying to persuade them), they might start to focus taxpayer resources on improving already established communities and not continue the senseless push of sprawl and its awful costs into farmlands edging the Everglades.
Yesterday's vote was only the first step in changing the Urban Development Boundary, but it was a very important one. If the commissioners had voted to "deny" the application, the matter would have been put to rest. One might have even been able to say; a new day had dawned. At least until the next (this was the fourth time the applicant has attempted to get his project approved) cycle of applications.
The choice to "transmit"-- a decision by a 7 to 5 vote-- serves an important purpose for the speculators. What they aim to do is to test the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.
What the 'transmit' vote means is that the state will now offer its review to the commission of an application that was rejected by county planning staff and approved by the lame community council and Planning Advisory Board; mainly comprised of developer representatives. In the past, the state's position with respect to the Urban Development Boundary-- a sprawl litmus test-- has sometimes been adversarial. Even when it wasn't, citizen opponents had the opportunity to use state regulations to pursue the arguments against ill-planned developments in an administrative court. This was the case in the application to build a new Lowe's Home Improvement Store outside the UDB in 2005. (The chief shills for Lowe's on the county commission were Commissioners Joe Martinez, Pepe Diaz and Natacha Seijas.) But now the rules have changes.
In the last session of the Florida legislature, the speculators took advantage of the economic crisis to get what they wanted: the eradication of the review agency, the Florida Department of Community Affairs. What remains of its power, today, is severely limited. Local speculators are in the process of testing what the state will do, the way some people use spears to prod at sharks landed on the backside of a fishing boat to see how they will react.
The question now: will the state exercise any power to thwart the speculators? The answer is critical not just for the single property owner, but the dozens of politically powerful property owners who purchased huge tracts of land outside the UDB at speculative values before the full extent of the real estate crash unfolded. US Century Bank, Ramon Rasco and its directors, for example.
Occupy Miami protesters should pay attention because the forces at work yesterday were the local branches of the Wall Street failure. Those mortgage backed securities that blew up the economy (and on the screen of the terrific movie, "Margin Call") have a birth place: they start with zoning decisions and platted subdivisions and retail strip malls for which demand was manufactured out of ether.
On some days, the forlorn landscape of West Dade-- where the applicant's property is located-- feels empty and threatening as any post-apocaplytic science fiction fantasy. Houses are boarded up. Foreclosures are rampant. Hundreds of square acres half-built and prepped to dissolve in the wetlands under the harsh Florida sun like the dregs of a bad dream where the law is whatever anyone makes of it. One half expects Mad Max to roll up in a crazed vehicle cobbled together from scrap and fueled on waste cooking oil. That is the legacy of the housing bubble and crash in the dregs of suburbia. Yesterday the County Commission showed it still operates by the old rules. We'll see how this turns out, won't we?