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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
June 2018

Incorporation may be on the November ballot

ACityhood_1fter debating the subject for nearly 15 years, voters living in a cluster of neighborhoods just west of Aventura may finally be able to decide if they’ll become Miami-Dade County’s 35th municipality.

On June 5, the Miami-Dade County Commission is scheduled to discuss whether to add cityhood on the November 6 ballot for registered voters living within an unincorporated 3.3-square-mile area between North Miami Beach, I-95, the county’s border with Broward, and Aventura.

This area includes several diverse neighborhoods and subdivisions, including Sky Lake (sometimes spelled Skylake), Highland Lakes, and Greyknoll Lake. Collectively it is often called Ojus.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes the area, thinks the time has come for voters to decide. “The people should be allowed to vote,” she says, adding that the November 6 ballot guarantees a decent turnout since voters will also be deciding who should be their next governor, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, state senator, and state representative.

Marc Hurwitz, president of the Sky Lake-Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association, is eager for such a referendum. “I love democracy,” Hurwitz says. “I think that’s what people have been waiting for, to be able to vote for their own destiny.”

But Alicia Rook, a resident of the Greyknoll Lake subdivision, says she hopes county commissioners will reject the effort to put cityhood on the November ballot. Rook fears that a new city could mean higher taxes and gentrification.

“The county should leave things alone,” Rook says. “We don’t want to be a city.”

Just over 18,000 people live within this unincorporated northeast Miami-Dade sector. In the entire county, unincorporated areas total 208 square miles; these are known collectively as the county’s unincorporated municipal service area, or UMSA, and it is governed by 13 county commissioners, elected from single-member districts, and an at-large strong mayor.

With the permission of the county commission, residents in unincorporated parts of the county can vote to join an existing city or form a new one. Since 2003, with the help of county officials, Ojus residents have examined the possibility of incorporating or being annexed by the affluent, condo-dominated City of Aventura since April 2003. During that period, Aventura officials have repeatedly rejected the notion of annexing areas to the west.

There was also a moratorium on new cities and annexations for 12 years, between 2003 and 2012, while county officials struggled to forge a coherent policy on the future of unincorporated Miami-Dade.

County analysts believe that the $1.3 billion in taxable property within unincorporated Ojus is sufficient to support a city. Rather than let their tax revenues flow to other parts of the county, pro-incorporation activists want to apply the money to municipal services like police, sanitation, and code enforcement.

Cityhood_2But anti-incorporation activists like Rook worry that incorporation will be more expensive for property owners. Rook says she and her neighbors receive excellent municipal services while being charged the UMSA property tax rate of $1.93 for every $1000 of assessed value. That’s a lower rate than any city in Miami-Dade County except Aventura ($1.73 for every $1000) and Doral ($1.90 per $1000).

Rook insists there’ll be little or no benefit for area residents if they leave the county. For example, the county will bar the future municipality from forming its own police department for three years. She also ridicules a county financial analysis that purports to show that the new city could operate with just a $9.2 million annual budget when other cities have budgets above $36 million.

As a result, she predicts, the new city will likely have to raise taxes in order to pay for a new city hall, new officials, and new services. Plus, she adds, the county will charge the area a substantial “mitigation” fee if it becomes a city.

Indeed, county analysts predict that its UMSA will lose $1.7 million in revenue should the Ojus region incorporate. To mitigate that loss, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will recommend that the future city be charged $575,000 a year for the next six years, says Jorge Fernandez, coordinator for the county’s Office of Budget and Management.

Even with that mitigation fee, Fernandez says, the new city can operate at its present property tax rate of $1.93 per $1000. It can also contract additional patrols from the Miami-Dade Police Department during its first three years. And Commissioner Heyman adds that the homestead exemptions that poor senior citizens in the UMSA area now enjoy will remain in place.

The county now gives seniors living within its UMSA who make less than $30,000 a year an additional $50,000 homestead exemption on their primary residence. It also offers another exemption for poor senior citizens who have lived in the same home for more than 25 years that waives property taxes entirely if that house, condo, co-op, or trailer home is valued at less than $250,000.

However, only 18 of the county’s 34 cities also offer the full $50,000 exemption and the long-term exemption for low-income seniors. Rook says she’s worried that future city leaders will revoke the tax breaks and even hike taxes in a bid to raise revenue.

Kenneth Friedman, a Highland Oaks resident and supporter of incorporation, says the senior homestead exemptions won’t disappear, though he admits it’s possible that the future city might need to charge some $50 more per year in property taxes. In exchange, Friedman says, residents would have control over how taxes are spent, including on new services.

The future city, though, might not have total control of its zoning. On June 5, the county commission will also decide whether the county should retain zoning powers for a ten-block area between NE 193rd Street and NE 203rd Street from NE 26th Avenue to W. Dixie Highway. That sector, which includes the 400-unit Gables Aventura apartment community, has been a hotspot for real estate developers and investors. It’s also where the county hopes someday to build a station for a commuter train that would carry people to various spots between Miami and Jupiter.

Although retaining zoning rights is still being pushed by county staff, the Miami-Dade Planning Advisory Board recommended against it this past September. Friedman says he plans to speak out against it, too.

“The county shouldn’t be in the business of zoning city properties,” he declares, adding that the county has little to worry about as most area residents aren’t against having a train station. “Whether we are a city or we remain part of the county, the train is coming,” he says. “It really isn’t an issue.”

But county transit planners don’t just want train stations. They’re advocating intense residential and commercial development along with the future stations. Dense development is intended to ensure that a future commuter line will have a built-in ridership. Intense development will also help pay for the commuter rail’s operation, since the county plans to pay for that with taxes collected from increases in property values within a half mile of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

Friedman says he would oppose further intensifying that area’s zoning. “It’ll destroy the integrity of that neighborhood,” he warns.

Rook and several other anti-incorporation activists are more worried about a Sunny Isles Beach-like situation occurring north of Miami Gardens Drive, where aging condominiums filled with elderly residents on fixed incomes now stand.

Soon after Sunny Isles incorporated in 1997, that city’s officials passed liberal zoning laws encouraging developers to replace MiMo-era motels along the oceanfront with towering luxury high-rises. Rook thinks a future city could pass similar laws for areas with older condominiums. She notes that investors are already snatching up units within those buildings.

Friedman asserts that pro-incorporation activists are not out to force senior citizens from their condos. Besides, he adds, the murky lakes north of Miami Gardens Drive don’t have the same appeal as the Atlantic Ocean. “Because of the configuration of our new city,” Friedman says. “It’s not a likely scenario.”

 

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