Developers Eye Land along Florida Everglades to Relieve Housing Shortage
MIAMI To fish hatchery owner Paul Radice, the farmlands sandwiched between bustling Miami and the vast Everglades are ideal for his business.
The well water is unpolluted by parking-lot runoff and is the natural temperature for his tanks of exotic koi and African cichlids, types of fish. Traffic is light and there are few strip malls or fast-food joints.
This landscape, the only subtropical farm region in the continental United States, is protected by a boundary line that was drawn two decades ago to keep development from pushing westward.
Now, to the dismay of farmers such as Radice, developers are snapping up Miami-Dade County's dwindling open land and hoping to persuade politicians to push the boundary line closer toward the Everglades.
Radice warned that new residents would "change the character of the area, and they'll want the area to change with them."
Plans by major developers call for more than 16,000 homes to be built on land beyond the line, which is known as the "urban development boundary." Currently, development beyond that line is restricted to one structure for every five acres.
Miguel De Grandy, an attorney for Texas-based developer D.R. Horton, said the proposed developments are needed to meet demand, especially with soaring housing prices putting homeownership out of reach for many middle-class people.
"The line was never intended to be a line in stone. It's not intended to be permanent," De Grandy said. "The bottom line, which people aren't addressing in this debate, is what are we going to do with the people? We are blessed with beautiful weather and people like to come here. They are not going to stop coming."
Battles over urban sprawl are increasingly common, especially in areas where cities have erected no-growth boundaries. What makes the Florida debate different is the area's role as one of the United States' biggest sources of winter vegetables and its location near the environmentally sensitive Everglades.
The boundary, first created in 1975, has been moved in mostly small segments several times, most recently in 2002, for a 174-hectare (435-acre) industrial park. The question for politicians this time is whether the Miami area's explosive population growth warrants moving it again.
It is up to the Miami-Dade County Commission to decide whether the boundary should be moved.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said he opposes any change because county planners have concluded there is sufficient land available for housing for the next 15 years. More houses, he added, might mean more demand for government services, such as schools, sewers and fire protection, and that could bring pressure to raise taxes.
"I can feel the pressure and certainly hear the pressure of the special interests wanting to move it. There's a lot of money involved," Alvarez said. "I think we have to be very careful. The key to this is planned growth."
Most members of the commission say they will wait until the completion this fall of a comprehensive land-use study of the region.
The proposed changes pit farmers against one another. Some want the area to remain rural, while others want to sell their land to developers for a high price.
Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, said the boundary line violates the rights of property owners. Many landowners say the boundary prevents them from getting top dollar for their property and forces them to continue sometimes unprofitable farming.
"They are saying, `I want options. Give me a choice,'" Edwards said. "We believe market forces should determine the position of the urban development boundary."
Proponents of leaving the boundary unchanged have formed a coalition called Hold The Line.
They plan to make their first stand against a proposal by the town of Florida City to annex nearly 1,700 hectares (4,300 acres). One developer has already proposed transforming some of the land into 6,000 new homes, stores, offices and a movie complex.
Opponents say the city's expansion would mark the beginning of the end of the Miami-Dade boundary line.
"If that happens, it's just a matter of time before the boundary is moved," said Pat Wade, owner of a plant nursery. "Agriculture doesn't stand a chance."
Source: Associated Press