City gives final vote to ridding river plan of marine industries protections
By Risa Polansky
The name "Port of Miami River" is out with the tide. You can't call it a "working river" either.
But Miami city commissioners insist they'll make sure the marine industry stays afloat.
They voted at a special meeting Tuesday to remove the phrase "Port of Miami River" from the city's comprehensive land-use plan, pledging support for the industry but ignoring advice from the planning advisory board and pleas from marine players to include specific language protecting the industry.
The comprehensive plan's Port of Miami River element is to now be called the "Miami River element" and encourage residential uses as well as industrial and commercial, something the plan didn't do before.
"That river is dead," Angel Gonzalez told fellow commissioners, imploring them to broaden the river element to allow for different types of development, which he thinks could help revitalize his district, which encompasses much of the river.
Commissioners Joe Sanchez and Michelle Spence-Jones agreed. Tomás Regalado, who left for a family emergency, said earlier in the meeting he supports the port but indicated he would back Mr. Gonzalez. Marc Sarnoff, a maritime attorney, voted against removing port protections.
Said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group:
"It's a sad but predictable result that could do irreparable harm and we're not willing to accept it, so we're going to the next step," possibly to the South Florida Regional Planning Council or Florida Department of Community Affairs.
However, to show support for the industry, the commission, led by Ms. Spence-Jones, agreed to add a phrase acknowledging the "the history of the marine industrial use along the river as vital to its economic development."
She asked also to include in the plan the phrase "working Miami River" to further recognize the industry.
Mr. Gonzalez and administrators shot her down.
"To me, "working' means more than one thing. "Working' means more than just industry," Ms. Spence-Jones protested, saying the term could also include commercial uses.
But "you don't know what it means to them," Mr. Gonzalez said, referring to attorneys who fight for the marine industry.
City Attorney Julie O. Bru agreed.
"I would avoid using that word," she said, referencing recent issues with "ambiguity."
The river element hoopla began after three consecutive appellate court decisions overturned commission-approved land-use changes that would have allowed for large-scale residential development along the river.
A panel of judges said the city was ignoring its comprehensive plan and advised following it or changing it.
City staff insisted the courts misinterpreted the element's intent.
This week's commission vote was designed to clear things up.
But Mr. Sarnoff, like marine players, said he fears removing specific industry protections and broadly allowing mixed uses could mean the death of the marine industry.
"Once you allow it to go laissez faire, I don't think you're going to have a marine industry," he said.
He predicted industry growth once a planned mega-yacht marina is built at Watson Island and river-based Merrill Stevens Dry Dock Co. completes a major revamp that would employ hundreds and serve mega yachts.
And the yacht owners could end up making second and third homes in Miami's many empty condo units, Mr. Sarnoff added.
Mr. Gonzalez said he'd welcome new marine businesses with open arms — but they haven't come.
He'd like to see development — any at all — take place along the river.
"I'm not looking specifically about condos, I'm looking at the opportunity to have mixed projects," he said. "I'm asking for the opportunity to develop my district."
Not only aren't marine businesses coming in, he said. They're leaving.
Chairman Joe Sanchez said he knows why.
"Their taxes continue to go up" because of nearby development, he said. "We need to provide incentives to the marine industry, not only to keep them there but to attract businesses to come down… if we don't find a way to cap their taxes, those property owners are going to sell."
Commissioners made similar points in an hours-long discussion last week, which they deferred in favor of spending more time studying the recommendations.
After this week voting in favor of city staff's advice to remove the word "port" from the plan, Mr. Sanchez told commissioners "it's a perfect opportunity for us now to put our money where our mouth is" and prove they support the industry.
The commission agreed to direct city staff to create a technical assistance program to help business that can't receive enterprise zone perks find relief.
"We don't want to lose that industry," Mr. Sanchez said. "We have to capitalize on that industry."
Without specific comprehensive plan protections, industry players fear they can't.
Munir Mourra, president of River Terminal Services, said last month that "there's no ifs, ands or buts about it — changing from industrial to residential would not be economically viable… definitely it will drive businesses out."