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Miami-Dade defers vote to move urban development boundary, again

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Google Earth
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A Google Earth map shows the area slated for the warehouse logistics center outside Miami-Dade's urban development boundary south of Florida's Turnpike, west of 112th Avenue.

Miami-Dade commissioners again deferred a controversial bid to move the southeastern border of the county’s urban development boundary to make way for a warehouse logistics center after developers tried to hammer out last-minute concessions during Tuesday’s meeting.

To sweeten the deal to make way for a sprawling distribution center, the group said it would buy nearby wetlands and hand them over to the county.

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“We're doing this even though we're not in a wetland basin in order to provide additional environmental benefits that are much better than the status quo,” said attorney Pedro Gassant, who is representing Aligned Real Estate Holdings.

But the surprise offer set off another round of questions over a project that has repeatedly failed to win approval and drawn fierce opposition from critics, including Monroe County, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Everglades Coalition and others, who say the county should not be allowing development outside the urban development boundary. The line was drawn decades ago to protect wetlands and farmland and control growth, but has come under increasing pressure as growth in the county swells. The area targeted for the center is also designated a coastal high hazard zone, vulnerable to flooding.

After Aligned Real Estate, made up of developer Jose Hevia and others, initially failed to win the necessary votes for a larger project totalling nearly 800 acres, they shrunk plans to just over 300 acres. Last month, that plan again failed to earn the super majority vote required to move the boundary.

Aligned has argued the county is running out of available industrial land so needs to move the boundary to allow the center. County staff, however, has calculated enough to meet the county’s comprehensive plan requirements.

Playing out in real time, Tuesday’s negotiations offered a peak into the group’s strategy. At one point, Gassant pointed out that the land could currently be used to build a packing house with septic tanks, a waste system that has come under more scrutiny as sea level rises, worsening pollution in Biscayne Bay.

“If it can happen today, maybe the ones who can do it won't be able to be paying the sewer lines to come to that area. And then they will fall on…the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who supports the project.

However, any new project would likely have to follow a new stricter septic ordinance enacted last year.

South Dade Logistics Center Storm Surge.png
Miami-Dade County
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A flood map included in the application shows storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane with winds under 94 mph could cover the site with between three and six feet of flooding.

The developer also said the land is polluted with arsenic, a chemical commonly found in Florida soil, mostly from historical farming. But it is also higher in South Florida where marine rocks, like limestone, also contain arsenic. Sosa and other commissioners who support the project pointed to the clean-up as another reason to approve it.

But county staff said they have not yet completed a contamination report to determine the amount or extent of the pollution.

Instead, staff along with critics have objected to expanding development in an area vulnerable to flooding and long-viewed as a buffer to the increasing impacts for powerful hurricane storm surges. The area is also part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineering planning project aimed at improving the flow of freshwater into Biscayne Bay.

Commissioner Daneille Cohen-Higgins complained the offer to buy land identified in the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) program was an attempt to draw attention away from the project’s shortcomings. Cohen-Higgins’ district covers the project.

“What you're doing is you're shifting our focus on your inability to meet the first requirement of moving the development boundary, which is need, and instead you have us talking about EEL,” she said. “Brilliant, brilliant.”

Making the offer during the meeting was another strategy, she said, explaining that representatives for the developer made no mention of it when they met with her Monday.

“It's also a manufactured opportunity for you to receive yet another deferral because of course, we don't have enough information,” she said.

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Aligned Real Estate Holdings
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The scaled-back project would include nearly 380 acres between wetlands and Southwest 256th Street.

Because of the ongoing changes, commissioners agreed to hold another public hearing. However, to get the matter settled before the November election, they side-stepped the 14-day deadline county staff said is required for zoning matters and instead agreed on a weeklong deadline that would allow them to reconsider the project on Nov. 1

To prevent confusing postponements in the future. commissioners also tentatively approved new rules for how projects can be deferred. A public hearing on the rule is scheduled for Nov. 11.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.