Miami, marine industry seek compromise on Miami River's future
By Risa Polansky
The City of Miami is proposing what administrators call a "compromise" on its Miami River policy.
The marine industry says it's not compromise enough.
They have until mid-April to try to work it out before it's back to the city commission.
Past city administration pushed for years for what officials called more development flexibility along the waterway.
Others viewed it as a bid for riverfront residential projects over marine industry operations — including new Mayor Tomás Regalado, who in January made a push to reverse course.
The Planning Department recently presented to elected officials what Deputy City Attorney Maria Chiaro called "a compromise of the elements in the comprehensive plan."
Officials two years ago changed the city's river policy in the comprehensive plan after a trio of lawsuits fighting commission-approved land-use changes along the river.
In a string of harsh opinions, appellate court judges contended that the city turned a blind eye on its own planning policy and recommended either following it or changing it.
Commissioners took the "change it" course, voting in 2008 to turn the plan's "Port of Miami River" element into the "Miami River" element despite objections from the marine industry and the city's Planning Advisory Board.
Florida's Department of Community Affairs that year rejected the proposed changes.
The city persisted, prompting litigation from the state.
The marine industry jumped in as what's called an intervener.
The struggle continued with little sign of progress until earlier this year, when Mayor Regalado proposed the city quit fighting the years-old lawsuits.
And taking cues from Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff, administrators began work on plan changes meant to smooth things over with the state and the industry — and to cement new river policy for future.
The vision is to preserve recreational and commercial uses on the river, Planning Director Ana Gelabert-Sanchez told the commission, though she said "flexibility" is also important.
The newly proposed compromise aims to "create an active and vibrant riverfront through mixed-uses," preserve recreational and commercial working waterfronts, allow flexibility in compatible uses, stimulate economic growth and promote viable marine uses, according to her presentation.
The new version would put the word "port" back into the comprehensive plan, addressing one of the more controversial lingering river issues.
But, it would take the river element out of the ports section of the plan and put it under the Coastal Management Element.
The marine industry takes issue with the move, says attorney Andrew Dickman, who represents the Miami River Marine Group.
But city planners say the state suggested it and point to other local governments that have done the same, including Palm Beach County, Jacksonville and Panama City.
Miami's proposal also aims to "provide additional protection to preserve" industrial land use, planners' presentation says.
The idea is to divide river properties into three categories with different stipulations for changing land use.
For those categorized as industrial use on industrial land, the city would consider land-use changes only every seven years in compiling the state-mandated Evaluation and Appraisal Report.
For industrial land used for commercial purposes, land-use changes would be allowed only through a large-scale amendment process, but only with market or site analysis to back it up, or if the industrially designated property is moved to another riverfront location.
And vacant or blighted land zoned industrial would have to go through a small-scale amendment process to see a land-use change, also only with market and site analysis or a transfer of industrially designated property to another river location in the city.
The industry isn't opposed to the concept of setting up criteria and a procedure for land-use changes, so long as there's "no net loss" to industrial properties, Mr. Dickman said.
But this version, he said, is "just not acceptable to us because the foundation of all that is on data that's flawed."
He insists the city should categorize river properties based on current use, not Miami's future land use map.
Mr. Dickman also says the proposed changes come after talks between the city and the state without input from the marine industry.
After hearing both sides, Commissioner Willy Gort asked city planners to follow up with industry players and to consider Mr. Dickman's call to make it city policy to support jobs, not more condos.
But he warned the industry it can't win 'em all.
"There are different types of uses on the river… at the same time, the river is not industrial all the way through," Mr. Gort said.
Chairman Sarnoff asked to see a compromise by mid-April.
If not, "I'm going to need to see the administration's position juxtaposed in a column next to their [marine players'] position," he said.
Don't expect smooth sailing, Mr. Dickman warned.
He pointed out also that if the city settles its differences with the state but not the industry, litigation would continue.
"This is going to take some work," Mr. Dickman said. "We're so far apart that it's going to be very difficult."