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Farmers fear rare agricultural land in South Dade will be turned into parking lots

An aerial view of a truck parking lot.
Daniel Rivero
A 2021 ordinance limited industrial truck parking to 0.4 trucks per acre. Nonetheless, some companies have continued to operate illegal truck parking lots. The lot owned by Paradise Palm Gardens LLC, on the left, has 112 open violations due to illegal truck parking. Some farmers fear rare farmland across the Redland area is in danger if a county ordinance that would expand truck parking passes.

The Everglades ecosystem begins two lots over from a tropical fruit grove owned and managed by Michael Wanek.

Guavas of different backgrounds and colors are grown for retail and distribution in rows, along with other rare tropical fruits like starfruit, bananas and prickly pears. Visitors from around the world come to the far-flung farm in the Redland area of South Dade to pick lychees.

“People from all sorts of cultures — Chinese, Vietnamese, Bangladesh, Middle Easterners — will come and they’ll walk away with hundreds of dollars worth of fruits,” said Wanek, the president of the Redland Homes and Farm Association, a nonprofit.

A man picks guava from a tree.
Daniel Rivero
Michael Wanek picks guava at his grove in the Redland area of South Dade. He worries that an ordinance working its way through the Miami-Dade County commission will hurt the agricultural area.

The Redland area is one of the only swaths of land in the continental United States where truly tropical fruits can be grown at a commercially viable scale.

The area is only about 50,000 acres, but it makes up a large portion of domestic production of dragonfruit, guavas, mamey, lychee and other fruits. The subtropical climate and rare swath of farmland south of Miami forms a pillar of Florida’s agricultural industry, the second largest segment of the state economy after tourism.

“You cannot grow what you can grow here anywhere else in the United States,” said Wanek.

But in recent years, encroaching housing developments and farms-turned-party-venues have increasingly threatened the area’s character, with many farmers questioning the long term viability of commercial farming.

Now a new battle about the future of the area comes in the form of a divisive ordinance proposed in the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners. Among other regulations for the Redland that the ordinance intends to slash: a cap on industrial truck parking.

"You cannot grow what you can grow here anywhere else in the United States."
Michael Wanek, president of the Redland Homes and Farm Association

Illegal truck parking has been an issue in Redland for years. In 2021, the county passed an ordinance that capped industrial truck parking at 0.4 trucks per acre.

The new ordinance proposes lifting the cap and allowing unlimited truck parking — prompting concerns that huge sections of farmland could be turned into parking lots.

Even with the ordinance in place, large plots have turned into truck parking lots, offering a view of what opponents say are the stakes of the battle.

The market rate for commercial truck parking can fetch as high as $750 in parts of South Florida. Turning acres of farmland into parking lots can be much more lucrative than farming itself, said Wanek.

Illegal parking lots and violations

“Most people, I would say, would be very concerned,” said Wanek on a recent morning. “You don’t imagine an agricultural area with that many trucks. I’ve never seen it anywhere. I’m from Iowa let me tell you — it’s been years since I’ve lived there, but I go back [and] I don’t see that.”

Wanek worries that roads in the Redland area were not built to withstand traffic from heavy trucks, and the sheer amount of trucks is causing potholes. Driving through the zone, WLRN and Wanek spotted an 18-wheeler catch a flat tire on a pothole-ridden gravel road, after the tire was seen grinding against the truck bed.

One area of the Redland, known as the '8.5 Square Mile' area by locals, is the hot spot of the illegal parking lots, according to county code violation data and maps. The environmentally sensitive area is on the western stretch of the Redland, backing up to the Everglades.

WLRN saw entire lots packed with 18-wheeler Amazon trucks, demolition trucks and car haulers.

“If somebody can explain to me how ag land needs car haulers parked out here, I would really like to understand that one,” said Wanek.

A single property, owned by the Davie-based company Paradise Palm Gardens LLC, has 112 open code violations for illegal commercial truck parking. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

A dump truck leaves a parking lot.
Daniel Rivero
In the 8.5 Square Mile Area, many truck parking lots are operating illegally, according to county records. “A number of those operating these illegal parking lots got upset when we passed the ordinance because they started receiving violations,” said Miami-Dade District 8 Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins.

“A number of those operating these illegal parking lots got upset when we passed the [2021] ordinance because they started receiving violations,” said Miami-Dade District 8 Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins, who represents part of the Redland area.

“Unfortunately, they have now received the ear of my colleague,” she added, referring to District 9 Commissioner Kionne McGhee.

McGhee, who also represents part of the rural area, proposed the latest ordinance — one that would largely undo truck parking regulations. The ordinance passed its first vote in the county commission with a 9-2 vote on July 6, with Cohen Higgins among those voting against it.

In a video recorded of McGhee speaking to supporters after passing the first vote, the commissioner cast the proposal as supporting the area by removing government regulations.

“This was just to let them know that we’re not leaving," McGhee said in that speech, referring to opponents to the move. "And we’re going to let them know that they’re not going to take away our farming and our ability to have a business."

McGhee’s effort to increase truck parking in the agricultural area comes on the heels of his successful effort to move the urban development boundary in South Dade in the name of job creation, opening 380 acres of farmland for development for warehouses.

That land lies close to coastal mangroves that serve an important ecological role, and the move was opposed by federal, state and local governments. Opponents continue to battle the development in court.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade moves boundary that protects wetlands and farms to make way for warehouses

McGhee’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The next step for the ordinance will be a committee meeting in September. If it passes that step, it would then go before the full commission for a final vote.

‘It’s hard to just live off of farming’

The supporters Mcghee was speaking to were made up of a group called the Miami Agritourism and Farms Association. The group was started by Daniela Guzman, an employee and family member of the family theme park By Brothers, which operates in the Redland.

Starting in January, By Brothers has received a series of code violations for having an unpermitted “above ground” pool and for various electric and building code violations for illegal structures, according to county records.

After the violations started, in April, the Miami Agritourism and Farms Association was formed, according to state corporation records. Guzman acknowledged that she has met with McGhee to try to assist the group in changing regulations of the agricultural area.

“We explained that we had a situation down here and we need to change things to help us,” Guzman told WLRN. “It’s hard to just live off of farming and we have an agritourism industry that has not been exploited yet and we need help to get it off the ground.”

Guzman said her focus is rolling back regulations that have nothing to do with truck parking. For instance, under the ordinance property owners would no longer be required to obtain a “certificate of use” from the county in order to operate fruit stands or when serving prepared food on an agricultural property.

"How are we going to move things in and out ... We need to deregulate a little bit on the trucks — we need more trucks, we need more businesses.”
Redland property owner Eladio Briceño

Requiring a business to have a certificate of use allows county inspectors to enter a property.

“You can do pony rides, hay mazes, pumpkin patches, all these kind of activities that farms do all across the country. We need more of that here, we need the ability to become innovative, ” said Guzman.

The By Brothers park was sued by a woman in 2021 who claimed she suffered injuries when she fell out of an unpermitted tram in the park while carrying an infant in her arms. The parties reached a settlement in March and the court case was dismissed, court records show.

Some supporters of the proposed ordinance are very clear that truck parking is at the core of their support.

“We need growth. We need to provide people with jobs that are able to sustain their families, not shut down our businesses,” Eladio Briceño, a Redland property owner, said at the July 6 commission meeting.

“We need the trucks. How are we going to move things in and out? We definitely need your support. We need your help. We need to deregulate a little bit on the trucks — we need more trucks, we need more businesses.”

An aerial view of a parking lot and farmland.
Daniel Rivero
South Dade is one of the only places in the continental United States where many tropical fruits can be grown. The area is also a vital domestic source of vegetables for the rest of the country during the winter months, which is only possible because it is at the same latitude of some parts of Mexico.

The ‘Wild West’ of South Florida

Technically, additional trucks would have to be “ancillary” — or connected in some way — to agriculture. Under the current system, property owners can apply to the county to park more trucks on their lot if they can prove that they need them for agricultural purposes.

“What’s telling is that we haven’t received one application for adding more trucks from farmers,” said commissioner Cohen Higgins, who opposes the ordinance. “This ordinance as it pertains to truck parking is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that claims to be about helping farmers, but it’s really about circumventing regulations.”

“Anytime you want to get people’s attention you will say ‘jobs jobs jobs,’ but these regulations are there for a reason,” she added. “We need to keep the safety of our residents in mind.”

"The more agricultural land we lose, the more we are no longer an agricultural area. Once you do the concrete and asphalt story, it will never return."
Mary Waters, longtime Redland farmer and resident

Miami-Dade County is currently building several areas where more industrial trucks can park. Those areas will be regulated to make sure trucks don’t damage the environment.

Besides those efforts, shipping and packing houses that already exist in the Redland can legally store industrial or commercial trucks.

Longtime Redland farmer and resident Mary Waters raises date palms on her land, and comes from a family of citrus farmers in Central Florida. She told WLRN the move to allow more trucks to park fits in with the broader picture of seeing the agriculture area as the “Wild West” of South Florida, a land where anything goes.

“The people that want to park in the Redland area — where it isn't regulated — it’s because they don't want the regulations,” said Waters.

If the ordinance goes through, she fears it will strike a blow to farmers who farm the land for a living. The more things besides farming that are allowed to take place in an agriculturally-designated area, the higher the value of the land, and the more incentive to turn away from farming altogether, she argued.

“The more agricultural land we lose, the more we are no longer an agricultural area. Once you do the concrete and asphalt story, it will never return,” said Waters. “It's fine if you're changing the law for the better. Not when you're making it worse.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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