'Blight' definitions for redevelopment purposes are far ranging
By Risa Polansky
Many have questioned whether Miami's Watson Island can, in good faith, be deemed blighted in order secure funding for the planned port tunnel there, but a state statute's definition of "blight" may surprise skeptics.
As part of a massive "global agreement" designed to fund large-scale projects in downtown Miami, city and Miami-Dade County officials have planned an expansion of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency.
Expanding the taxing district, designed to generate dollars to improve blighted areas and slums, would allow the governments to use money generated there to fund developments within its bounds.
Stretching the district to Watson Island makes possible using redevelopment monies to pay for the planned port tunnel.
But first, a study must analyze whether the area qualifies as a slum or as blighted — the criteria for establishing a redevelopment area.
Miriam-Webster defines "blight" as "a deteriorated condition."
But the law that provides for the formation of redevelopment area, Florida State Statute Chapter 163, is "not the Webster dictionary version of "blight,'" said Carol Westmoreland, executive director of the Florida Redevelopment Association. "Blight can be faulty layout of property lines and parcels, it can be extreme flooding problems, it can be traffic issues."
Early this year, when plans to use redevelopment dollars to close funding gaps for the tunnel came to the surface, redevelopment agency Executive Director Jim Villacorta said that if traffic congestion hinders quality of life, an area could qualify as "transportationally blighted."
If the planned port tunnel, designed to keep port-related traffic out of downtown Miami and speed up trucks' access to the port, "takes trucks out of the city streets and puts them on I-395," he said, then expanding the Omni district "could be worthwhile."
That redevelopment agencies exist only to transform overtly derelict areas is a misconception, Ms. Westmoreland said.
An agency's job in actuality is "raising the tax base through improvements to properties…you've got to have crime and infrastructure dealt with before you can realistically say to a business, "this is a great place to relocate.'"
Florida statutes define "blighted area" as "an area in which there are a substantial number of deteriorated, or deteriorating structures, in which conditions, as indicated by government-maintained statistics or other studies, are leading to economic distress or endanger life or property."
Two or more of the following factors must exist for the area to qualify for a redevelopment agency:
N Defective or inadequate street layout, parking, roadways or public transportation facilities
N Lack of appreciation of area aggregate assessed property values for the five years before studying the area
N Faulty lot layout
N Unsanitary or unsafe conditions
N Inadequate and outdated building density patterns
N Dropping commercial lease rates compared to the rest of the county or municipality
N Tax or special assessment delinquency exceeding the fair value of the land
N Disproportionately high residential and commercial vacancy rates
N Disproportionately high crime
N Disproportionately high emergency service calls to the area
N Disproportionately high number of state building code violations
N Diversity of ownership or unusual conditions of title preventing the free alienability of land
N Government-owned property with poor environmental conditions
The statute includes the caveat that "blighted area" could also be defined by only one of the above criterion so long as "all taxing areas…agree, either by interlocal agreement or agreements with the agency or by resolution, that the area is blighted."
Because of the statute's provisions, "It could be a misnomer to say "blight,'" Ms. Westmoreland said. "People fast forward to the roughest area where there's high crime and no infrastructure."
Should the city and county succeed in expanding the Omni district, its projected revenues are earmarked to fund not only the tunnel, but also a revamp of Bicentennial Park to create Museum Park and bailouts for the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and Jungle Island.
In doing so, city and county tax dollars would be freed to back a ballpark for the Marlins, development on the Orange Bowl site and a proposed downtown streetcar.
The current Omni redevelopment area is bounded by the Florida East Coast Railroad right-of-way to the west, the northern right-of-way line of I-395 to the south, the western shore of Biscayne Bay to the East and the southern right-of-way of Northeast 20th Street to the north.
The expansion would include Watson Island to the east and Bicentennial Park to the south.