Battle over Miami River designation headed for October mediation
By Jacquelyn Weiner
After months of dormancy, a years-long dispute over the future of the Miami River is moving toward mediation.
It's been a year since the state first rejected the City of Miami's proposed change to its comprehensive plan: removing the word "port" from its existing Port of Miami River element.
Now the city is preparing for mediation, the next step in the ongoing battle between the marine industry and a growing residential presence along the river.
The involved parties — the city, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and the intervening Miami River Marine Group — are to enter formal mediation in October, said Rafael Suarez-Rivas, assistant city attorney and the city's primary counsel for the case.
The city had hoped to go to mediation this month, but is now projecting an October date due to scheduling conflicts among the three parties and the mediator, he said.
If mediation is unsuccessful, the case is to go before a judge at an administrative hearing, said James Miller, spokesman for the Department of Community Affairs.
And if sanctions are ultimately imposed by the state, that decision would be made by the Florida Cabinet, he said, serving as the "Administration Commission."
According to Florida statutes, "the commission shall specify remedial actions" to bring the comprehensive plan into compliance and "may direct state agencies not to provide funds to increase the capacity of roads, bridges, or water and sewer systems within the boundaries of those local governmental entities."
"We hopefully don't have to go that route," Mr. Miller said of the administrative hearings. "It's kind of sticky and ugly at that point."
The ongoing issues surrounding the Miami River legal battle began after three appellate court decisions filed by the Miami River Marine Group overturned commission-approved changes to the city's comprehensive land-use plan in 2007. These changes would have allowed for large-scale residential development along the river.
A panel of judges found that the city was ignoring its land-use plan and recommended that it follow the plan or change it.
The city took the "change it" course, as the Miami City Commission voted in May 2008 to change the phrase "Port of Miami River" and replace it with "Miami River Element," despite objections from the marine industry and the city's Planning Advisory Board.
The city called it an effort to clear the way for more development flexibility.
The state's Department of Community Affairs dealt the next roadblock in July of last year and again in January, rejecting the proposed changes.
"Ultimately we were still not happy with their policies," Mr. Miller said.
That is where the state now stands as it prepares for formal mediation with the city and the intervener, the Miami River Marine Group.
An intervener participates in mediation between other parties when the court finds it has a vested interest in the outcome of a case, Mr. Miller said.
The mediation will likely take place in Tallahassee, he said.
And when a date is chosen, the city will be ready, Mr. Suarez-Rivas said.
"The mediation will be a good-faith attempt to try to work out some language… that would be acceptable to all the parties."
Exactly what that would be is up for debate, he said.
"I cannot tell you with any probability what the outcome of this would be," Mr. Suarez-Rivas said. "I just don't know."
What he did say is that the city does not intend to block the marine industry's progress.
"Legally, the city's position has always been that the city does want to help… foster commercial and recreational working waterfronts," Mr. Suarez-Rivas said.
Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, disagreed, saying that the city has been consistently bent on eliminating marine industry from the Miami River in favor of residential development.
"So far we're made several overtures to the city," Ms. Bohnsack said. "They haven't been willing to change the original goal as far as we can tell."
There are far too many livelihoods at stake to let the area's marine industry to go by the wayside, Ms. Bohnsack said.
Andrew Dickman, the Miami River Marine Group's attorney, said that the city decided to initiate formal mediation were unsuccessful as they could not come to a compromise.
Formal mediation involves a professional outside mediator, he said.
Still, "I would find it hard to believe at this point how much more we can compromise," Mr. Dickman said.
The city opted to invoke mediation to avoid continued court action, he said.
"The city in my view is dragging out the litigation for whatever reason."