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Friday, February 1, 2013

The Trolleygate Dog And Pony Show

Miami once loved Coconut Grove enough to place its City Hall
there. Now it puts Coral Gables' diesel bus garage there.
Trolleygate was the topic of a heated Town Hall meeting at Miami City Hall last night, pitting David against several Goliaths. In this corner the citizens of West Coconut Grove. And in that corner, the cities of Miami and Coral Gables and Astor Development. It's a grudge match with a lot of history

Representing the City of Miami was District 2 Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, whose district covers Coconut Grove. "Some people say" Sarnoff only represents developers and the rich White folk, while the concerns of Black West Grove residents come last. Mr. Sarnoff was buttressed last night by a phalanx of City of Miami government lackeys, a fancy slide presentation, and, at least, one hired gun.

Coral Gables sent a lawyer. Astor Development went unrepresented. West Grove residents came out in force, filling the chamber with standing room only in the back. This blog was represented by me.

"Ready for my close up."
Before the meeting starts, Marc D. Sarnoff poses for a reporter.
Marc Sarnoff -- who once falsely claimed a heritage with General David Sarnoff (who is actually a relative of mine) before he was forced to admit he made it all up -- took the wind out of most sails as he started the meeting. He advised the residents that because a law suit had been filed that afternoon by West Grove residents to stop the diesel bus maintenance garage, there were two subjects the city (himself) could not address on the advice of city lawyers: the issues of zoning and that of notification.

On this, Sarnoff was as good as his word. However, while he never discussed zoning and notification, the assembled residents and lawyers couldn't get enough of those two topics when it came their turn. But first, it was time for the Dog and Pony Show.

Sarnoff introduced Tim Ogle (SP?) an environmental engineer with Stantec, a company hired by Miami to put on a yadda, yadda, yadda slide presentation that said, essentially, having diesel buses running through the neighbourhood was no worse than licking ice cream, or something. Quite frankly the MEGO factor [My Eyes Glaze Over] set in pretty quickly. I looked around the room and, while people were polite, they appeared skeptical, especially after it was determined that Stantec had been hired by the City of Miami for this very presentation.

I couldn't help but think that I was watching a presentation normally given to residents when a project is still on the drawing board, not when it is already a fait accompli and residents are trying to get it stopped. However, to be fair, Miami got its money worth. It was a very good presentation and throwing good money after bad to save a developer's project isn't a crime, is it? Who knows this better than Commissioner Marc Sarnoff?

Pierre Sand making his points.
After the environmental presentation, Sarnoff opened the floor to questions and statements. First up was Pierre Sands, president of Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association. Despite Sarnoff saying people would be limited to 2 minutes, Sands was given much more than that and even allowed to rebut Sarnoff at one point.

This allowed Sarnoff to cut him off twice later, once when he tried to call bullshit on Sarnoff's rebuttal and later when Sands wanted to address comments made about him from one of the residents who spoke. Sands made the points [paraphrasing] that the local residents get nothing out of the diesel bus maintenance garage and the City of Miami gets nothing out of it, but it's clear what the city of Coral Gables gets out of it: It gets rid of a diesel bus maintenance garage and gets a multimillion dollar development. The unasked question hanging in the air was, "What does Marc D. Sarnoff get out of it?" but Sands didn't go there. Sands closed by expressing extreme disappointment in how Sarnoff has ignored the West Grove since taking office, insisting that Coral Gables' diesel bus maintenance garage be located "in the City Beautiful," another name for Coral Gables. He ended on a round of applause.

Sarnoff is a clever man. He anticipated every single one of Sand's points and was able to rebut them with his own Dog and Pony Show slide show presentation, which had already been prepared. First Sarnoff claimed there was no way he could have stopped the project. Astor Development bought the land fair and square and the building met all city requirements. Once Sarnoff realized the developer had the right to go ahead, he was able to get $200,000 to fix up a football field at Armbrister Park. Sarnoff claimed the developer did this out of the goodness of his heart because he didn't have to do anything for the community. Sarnoff's slide show included facts and figures about the football field. As for Sand's contention that Sarnoff has done nothing for the community, he showed slides of happy builders and residents saying they have, or will be, building up to 80 homes in the area.

Sarnoff's unspoken message seemed to be, "Screw with this bus garage and not only do you lose these improvements to the football field, but also your biggest champion at city hall to improve the neighbourhood."  This seemed to be a shot across the bow of the Coconut Grove Collaborative Development Corporation, which has several projects on the drawing board that will need to get City Hall approval.

Some of the back-and-forth between Pierre Sands and Marc D. Sarnoff, discussing the football field at Armbrister Park: 

None of this mollified the residents, who had a litany of objections that hardly touched on diesel fumes and football fields. For West Grove residents it was all about the subjects Sarnoff wasn't allowed to address: zoning and notification of residents. Two members of the Coconut Grove Village Council said they felt blindsided when the heard the garage was already being built and neighbourhood residents said Sarnoff just did an end run around them after they stated their objections. According to Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald, Sarnoff claimed: 
“This particular developer, his wife is very charitable. He’s very charitable,” Sarnoff said. “They agreed to approximately a quarter million (dollars) to improve the football field.”

But residents say when he encountered opposition, Sarnoff simply moved on to another group. In April, he attended a meeting of the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance and, in October, a gathering of football coaches at Armbrister Park, according to those in attendance.

“He wanted us to say it was a good project and we were behind it, considering they were going to renovate the playing facility,” said Rondy Powell, a coach at the park for 20 years. “I kind of figured when they came, it was kind of like a back-room deal.”

A spokesman for the Ministerial Alliance said the group neither approved nor objected, but did vote to have UM look at environmental hazards.

Sarnoff said he never brought it to the Grove’s elected body, the Coconut Grove Village Council, which was created in 1991 to give residents a voice at City Hall. “I would rather go directly to the community,” he said. “I don’t think the Village Council is very good at dealing with that type of issue.”
However, one of the contentions of most everyone who spoke last night said Sarnoff never went directly to the community with this project, merely factions within the community.

Several residents making their points about the diesel bus garage:

However, the biggest surprise, was Coral Gables' lawyer Craig Leen [not captured], who spoke the most sense all evening. He first said that he too had to be careful of what he said because Coral Gables, which is not currently party to any of the court actions, could be dragged into the lawsuit at any time. However, in a nutshell, he said Coral Gables was blindsided by the controversy. Its contract with Astor Development is for the company to locate a diesel bus garage somewhere, anywhere, provided it complies with all local laws. Coral Gables thought it was all a done deal and everyone had signed off on this diesel bus garage. Unless Astor complies with all local laws the City of Coral Gables will not take possession of the diesel bus garage, therefore it would not be able to redevelop the current diesel bus garage for its multimillion dollar development.

West Grove's Lawyer: "Who would like a bus depot next to their house?"

The current state of the diesel bus garage as of January 31, 2013
Nothing was decided last night, but the West Grove's lawyers are asking for an emergency injunction that all work on the diesel bus cease. Furthermore, they are asking the court to rule on 3 issues:

• Did Miami give proper notice to West Grove residents under all City of Miami ordinances?

• Does the Miami 21 code of ordinances truly allow for a lack of notification to the community, as Commissioner Sarnoff contends and, if so, is that even constitutional?

• Does the use of a diesel bus maintenance facility at that corner contravene the the Miami 21 city plan? 

Coconut Grove Village Councillor Renata Samuels-Dixon sure thinks so. She found language in the Miami 21 plan that would specifically rule out a "government vehicle maintenance facility" as proper for the corner of S. Douglas Road and Frow Avenue. Since Coral Gables is a "government" under the law, and a diesel bus is defined as a "vehicle," and the structure was defined at that very meeting as a "maintenance facility," the case for West Grove residents looks pretty strong. However, you can never tell what will happen in court.

The only thing last night made clear is that the citizens of the West Grove, the City of Miami, the City of Coral Gables, and Astor Development are embroiled in a conflict that is going to cost money, no matter what is decided. West Grove's lawyers are working pro bono. Miami taxpayer money is being spent to help Marc Sarnoff support another developer, this time in Coral Gables, the next town over.

Is this money well spent?