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Miami River at a turning point

Miami River at a turning point

Land use showdown reaching a critical stage

   This should prove to be an historic summer for the historic Miami River.

   A long-running battle between parties seeking to keep the river for shipping and marine support services and city officials inclined to allow new residential developments on the riverfront is coming to a head, with legal challenges of city land use decisions reaching important milestones.

   The 5.5 mile Miami River has been the home to shipping and marine-related businesses for decades and land use along its shores is a touchy subject. The city sprang up along the river, and it is even the location of the 1998 archeological find known as the Miami Circle, believed to have been made by native Americans some 500 to 800 years ago.

   Marine businesses want to preserve the river for another reason: they see it as one of the last pieces of feasible working waterfront for smaller vessels. But for the last several years, the momentum in terms of land use has been in favor of more residential development.

   'We're looking at an erosion of the ability to operate marine businesses on the river,' said Fran Bohnsack,    executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a private cooperative of cargo carriers and marine support businesses working to preserve the river as a working marine industrial river. 'The city is giving away marine commercial property.'

   The Miami River Marine Group is at the forefront of a legal challenge of a series of decisions by the city that would change land use classifications on three pieces of riverfront property away from marine industrial use and make way for the development of high-density residential properties.

A Miami River tugboat moves past a residential property on the river.

   All three proposed developments are located on the north side of the river between Northwest 18th Avenue and Northwest 24th Avenue.

   The longest-running dispute among the three is a proposed development known as Hurricane Cove, located in the 1800 block of North River Drive and originally approved by the City Commission in 2004. That followed earlier approvals from the city's Planning Advisory Board and the Zoning Board.

   The Hurricane Cove site was sold for development and would have approximately 1,100 condominium units. It is located on a 10-acre site that is still being used as a self-help commercial marina, where repairs can be made on small and medium-sized vessels.

   The other properties are Coastal on the River, on five acres adjacent to the 22nd Avenue Bridge and earmarked for a 12-story building with 600-plus units, and Brisas del Rio, nearby at Northwest 24 Avenue, a 10-acre site planned for development with over 800 units.

   Coastal and Brisas are non-operative marine industrial sites since being sold for development. But the Coastal site has two large slips that could be used to dock larger river vessels or tugs, while Brisas was formerly the site of a large vessel repair facility with a large slip that could handle something as large as a river-class roll-on/roll-off vessel.

   The Coastal and Brisas sites are on either side of Florida Detroit Diesel-Allison, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Detroit Diesel Corporation, now part of DaimlerChrysler. It provides marine engines, transmissions, marine generators, and service. Marine interests say the location of Detroit Diesel alone shows the clash of land uses approved by the city commission, and say it would likely lead to noise complaints from residents if the condominium units are actually built.

   Andrew Dickman, the attorney representing the Miami River Marine Group and its supporting parties in the legal challenges, said the problems on the river started several years ago, when the city started making 'very liberal' land use interpretations at other sites along the river. That led to 'huge speculation' on river property values, and prompted some owners of industrial properties to sell as the market heated up.

   Since 2000, when there were an estimated 80 acres along the Miami River used for marine businesses, the working waterfront is down to half of that.

   Dickman said the loss of 25 acres for the three proposed projects approved by the city would have a severe impact on the overall use of the river as a de facto port.

   Although the Miami River is not officially a port, it is the base for niche liner services with enough volumes to qualify it as the fifth largest port in Florida.

   While the Port of Miami handles large vessels from all the major intercontinental trade routes, the Miami River supports shallow draft vessels that specialize in services to Caribbean and Latin American ports with similar draft limitations. Much of the river has a draft of 11 feet. Planned dredging projects expected to resume in late summer would deepen the river to 15 feet.

Miami River vessels primarily handle containerized cargo.

   The flagship liner carrier on the river is Antillean Marine, a family-owned operation started by the Babun brothers in the early 1960s after they had fled Cuba. Antillean Marine specializes in service to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and is now headed by second-generation president Sara Babun.

   The river is also home to niche operators like Pioneer Shipping, and Betty K Agencies USA. There are about 30 privately owned terminals along the river, with the greatest concentration farthest inland toward the airport.

   Bohnsack says 90 percent of the cargo on the river moves in containers. River transshipments are valued at $4 billion a year, according to the MRMG, and generate thousands of jobs directly and indirectly in South Florida.

   For the three projects being challenged, the city planning focus so far has not been on the broad impacts to the river business and the regional economy, Dickman notes. The city has looked at the projects more as relatively small, individual issues.

   State officials from the Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), the first entity where appeals can be filed, are leaning in the same direction. That is true in part because the state tends to look at larger projects, leaving land use proposals of 10 acres or less largely to the discretion of local zoning boards and city commissions.

   Dickman said the MRMG has tried to get the DOAH to take a broader view of the impact of high-density residential developments. The DOAH administrative judge in the Hurricane Cove case issued a ruling in June that basically supports the City of Miami decisions on the development, and he limiting the data that could be submitted in support of the argument that the development would have broader impacts on Miami River's marine businesses.

   That DOAH decision led to the June 14 filing of an appeal with the Third District Court in Miami.

   Dickman said that with a precedent of sorts in the Hurricane Cove case, the chances are the other two appeals pending before the DOAH will receive similar rulings.

   But in previous land use cases filed at the District Court level, the court has come closer to the MRMG's interpretation of the city comprehensive plan.

   'We're feeling a lot more confident in District Court,' Dickman commented, adding that if the Coastal and Brisis appeals fail before the DOAH, all three cases might be consolidated into a single case in District Court.

   The MRMG is joined in its legal challenges by Captain Beau Payne of P&L Towing & Transportation, a tugboat company, as well as the Durham Park Neighborhood Association and two individuals, Horatio Stewart Aguirre and Ann Stester.

   Dickman's strategy on behalf of the group is to make the case that state studies and the city comprehensive plan have both shown the need for working waterfront property.

   A state senate study said there is a general need for working waterfront property throughout Florida, and warned that the greatest danger to marine industrial land is residential development.

   For starters, residential land has a higher value, which creates a market incentive to sell out if local governments allow a conversion to residential development.

   The higher property values also increase taxes for property that had previously been in areas zoned exclusively for industrial use, creating further problems for marine industrial businesses.

   In addition, the trend puts a damper on marine businesses in other ways, discouraging investments in property improvements and even new vessels and marine equipment.

   Dickman also notes the city itself has broader planning documents that address the 'Port of Miami River' and the need to protect that resource.

   'Marine businesses rely on zoning and land use classifications to prevent speculation and allow them to have stable working conditions,' Dickman said.

   He added that with a dwindling amount of working waterfront, it is ironic that the City Commission 'is catering to developers of high-end condos, when that market is already flooded, and ignoring the enormous economic resource river businesses provide for the entire region.'

   Added Bohsack: 'We're always hoping that it's going to sink in what this really means, that what we do means more to the city than condos.'

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