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Study centers S. Dade growth around mass transit sites

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Cloaked in the 3,214 pages of studies and flowcharts and data and maps that comprise the South Miami-Dade Watershed Plan is a search for South Dade's soul.

People will keep coming, the report assumes: some 700,000 of them by 2050, or enough to fill the city of Miami twice. Through many of its 68 recommendations, the plan tries to figure out how and where those people will fit in a 370-square-mile area, from Tamiami Trail to the Monroe County line, that is already strained on its roads, in its schools, on water and on land.

''It's not If you build it, they will come,'' said Carter McDowell, a member of the Watershed Plan's citizen advisory committee. ``They're coming -- the question is where do we build.''

Consultants hired by the county to oversee the five-year, $4 million study will recommend county leaders concentrate the growth along corridors that are served -- or may someday be served -- by mass transit. Wide swaths around Kendall Drive and Florida's Turnpike would be opened up to modest multifamily buildings, and a half-mile-wide aisle along South Dixie Highway would be targeted for somewhat larger developments.

''Not incredibly high densities; not skyscrapers,'' said Michael Davis, a vice president for the consulting firm Keith and Schnars.

By creating new residential areas with town houses and low-rise condominiums within walking distance of mass transit -- as opposed to building new single-family homes in the far reaches of the county -- planners believe they can minimize the impact.

''It attracts people to work, to play and to do things close to public transportation,'' said Lawrence Percival, who represented the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations on the advisory committee and supported most of the consultant's recommendations. ``If we want to have public transportation, people have to ride it, and we have to get people out of their cars.''

Numerous such projects are already opening along the U.S. 1 corridor, including buildings in South Miami and downtown Dadeland that are far larger than anything recommended in the Watershed Plan. Supporters of the plan believe old strip malls and car dealerships are ripe for redevelopment.

''Our community has made a lot of mistakes in growth management in the past,'' said Roger Carlton, who has chaired the advisory committee since its creation, but gave up his voting power when he became an assistant county manager last year. ``This plan is a way to avoid them.''


The plan has sparked growing resistance as it spreads through neighborhoods from Coral Gables to Florida City. Residents fear new development will encroach on their single-family neighborhoods, and five South Miami-Dade municipalities have already passed resolutions expressing ``strong concerns.''

''I feel so bad for the people who moved to Kendall 10 or 15 years ago thinking it was paradise, and now wherever they go they're stuck in traffic,'' said Cutler Bay council member Ernie Sochin. ``It's already happening here. I don't want it to get worse.''

As the Miami-Dade Commission begins debating the Watershed Plan this week, objections from municipal leaders and powerful lobbyists are not only a political concern. They could undermine the entire Watershed Study.


Much of the study's growth-management vision is built around the assumption that each municipality, as well as unincorporated areas, will absorb an agreed-upon number of future homes to be constructed. The plan anticipates 204,000 new homes to be built in the southern half of the county by 2025.

But those municipalities have broad control over their own zoning and land-use rules. If they balk, the entire plan could collapse. At the same time, the developers and lobbyists who often influence county politics are certain to oppose a plan that freezes the Urban Development Boundary, which restricts development outside its boundaries, for so many years.

In some cases, at least, the sticking points may be surmountable. Palmetto Bay village manager Charles Scurr said the town already has plans for more residential density along U.S. 1 -- plenty to absorb the 3,067 units requested in the study.

He worries, however, that the consultants' map will make it harder for the village to stop developers from building condos farther east, on quiet roads of single-family homes.

''If you leapfrog back two blocks and build a town house, you decimate the neighborhood,'' he said during a recent drive through the village's Mangowood neighborhood of single-family homes.

He, like other municipal officials, is also skeptical the state and county will provide enough infrastructure to keep up.

''We're really not NIMBYs,'' said Scurr, using the acronym for Not In My Back Yard. ``We believe in good, solid urban planning.''

Carlton said the map could be redrawn to accommodate municipalities that show specific plans to absorb their shares of the new homes. He also acknowledged the ''historic distrust of the county'' over building infrastructure on time.

Opposition to the plan goes well beyond skeptical municipal leaders. The Watershed Study's 29-member advisory committee, which held dozens of public meetings over the years, splintered over numerous issues, including environmental protection, agribusiness and its own internal procedures.

Similar dissent within an advisory committee two years ago killed a $1 million county study on preserving agricultural lands.


The Watershed Plan committee never reached consensus on the consultant's overall plan, never adopted a recommendation by the agreed-upon 80 percent margin and barely got a simple majority to support most of the package. Seven members voted against every recommendation, and some said they felt rushed through the plan's critical stages -- hurried because the consultant's contract was coming to an end.

At the same time, growing buzz about the density recommendations is reinvigorating classic Florida debates about whether government should be blocking growth instead of planning for it.

''Don't allow it,'' said Paul Neidhart, a Palmetto Bay council member, who owns a florist shop and has lived in the community for 38 years. ``Close the door.''

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