|Could Be a Code Breaker|
|Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor|
Miami Shores village manager appears to flout strict yard rule
In Miami Shores, violating the village code of ordinances can come with a hefty price. That is, unless you’re the village’s top bureaucrat. Then you only have to worry about anonymous residents snitching to a local news publication, instead of the village’s code enforcement officers.
Late last year, Biscayne Times received an unsigned letter, sprinkled with typos, that started off by highlighting a village ordinance restricting vegetable gardens to backyards only. That law had sparked a pitched legal battle last summer over the village forcing homeowners Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll to rip out an organic vegetable garden the couple had been cultivating in their front yard for 17 years.
That same ordinance also requires homeowners to have a minimum of two trees on their property’s “green space.” To wit: Division 17 -- Landscaping, Section 536 -- Design Standards: “All green space shall be planted with grass, sod or living ground cover and a minimum of two trees.”
The next line in the anonymous letter reads: “The house below is 230 NE 100 Street and the required trees are noticeably absent.” Below that is an aerial photo of a cream-colored residence in Miami Shores with a boat and a truck parked in a rear driveway.
“Why was this house not cited under the same codes as Hermine Rickets [sic] and Tom Carrol [sic], is it because it is the home of Miami Shore [sic] Village Manger [sic], Tom Benton,” the letter asks. “Obviously the rules do not apply to Mr. Benton.”
The unknown correspondent concludes by stating, “Name withheld to prevent harassment by MSV.”
The anonymous source was only half right. There are no trees in the property’s front yard. But there does appear to be one skinny palm tree (probably an Alexander palm) in the backyard of the three-bedroom house Benton purchased in 1982.
Jutting out of the grass, the palm rises like a stiff appendage alongside a fence abutting the property next door, which has a more lush tree canopy.
In most Miami-Dade municipalities, such a minor violation would likely go unnoticed. But diminutive Miami Shores, population 10,800, is known for its ultra-fussy rules and regulations.
Benton’s alleged infraction and the anonymous complaint it spawned reveal deep divisions among neighbors who insist that local laws ensure the village doesn’t lose its pristine, hometown USA feel, and those who scoff at overzealous enforcement that stands in the way of amenities ranging from a front-yard vegetable garden to dog grooming services.
“I’m almost 100 percent sure that whoever sent the letter had a bad experience,” says Miami Shores resident and Biscayne Times correspondent John Ise. “They were probably fined or told they can’t do something they wanted to do, so they’re taking it out on the village manager.”
While he understands the Miami Shores bureaucracy’s strict adherence to the code, he says that at times the rules and regulations can border on the absurd, frustrating some residents in the extreme.
“Per the code, you must have two trees on your property,” Ise notes. “Well, what exactly does that mean? Can it be tiny six-inch saplings you can purchase at Home Depot? Or does it have to be a fully grown tree? It just becomes a complete fool’s errand to try to define all these things.”
For Regina Vlasek, owner of Jolly Mutt Dog Grooming Salon, dealing with Miami Shores government has stalled her plans to move her business to a new storefront. Even though she operated her dog pampering business at the same location (212 NE 98th St.) for 17 years, the village code didn’t explicitly allow for such an enterprise.
Since signing the lease on her new place last June, Vlasek has had to seek a variance from the planning and zoning appeals board. Yet she still hasn’t been able to reopen because of what she describes as bureaucratic red tape. “I learned the hard way after I made the decision to move that if it wasn’t listed in the code, it wasn’t allowed,” Vlasek says. “The departments go by the letter of the law.”
Still, Vlasek says, Benton has been gracious in helping her resolve her situation. “He hasn’t really been the problem,” she says. “Although the rules are pretty hard in Miami Shores, they protect us from looking like North Miami.”
Hermine Ricketts, the homeowner whose ongoing skirmish with Miami Shores code enforcement over her organic vegetable garden garnered national attention, says she isn’t surprised that someone anonymously ratted out Benton. Ricketts and her husband are appealing a Miami-Dade Circuit judge’s ruling in August 2016 upholding the village’s right to regulate their front yard.
The couple sued Miami Shores after they were ordered, in the summer of 2013, to tear out their beds of homegrown okra, kale, lettuce, onions, spinach, Asian cabbage, and more -- up to 75 varieties of vegetables. They were threatened with fines of up to $50 a day.
“Some people display their frustration in a quiet manner,” Ricketts says. “Others take [the village] to court.”
Ricketts believes the letter to Biscayne Times was sent anonymously because many people in Miami Shores have a fear of local government officials. “If they weren’t afraid, they would come out publicly,” she says. “We have to stop being afraid. Government is supposed to work for us.”
So why hasn’t Benton been cited or fined for breaking the same rules that have been enforced against Ricketts and Carroll and others? That, unfortunately, remains a mystery. The village manager did not respond to four phone messages and two e-mails requesting comment.
Biscayne Times reporters twice visited Benton’s home, confirming there is only one tree on the property, that lonely palm in the backyard. Maybe the tall shrubs lining the residence’s front exterior walls qualify as trees. Or is it possible that Benton was lucky enough to be granted an exemption when the ordinance was passed by the village council?
Miami Shores Mayor Alice Burch seems more concerned about giving credence to a “silly complaint” filed by a “cowardly, anonymous” tipster than addressing whether Benton should be held accountable for his property not being up to code.
“I feel like I am taking an elevator to a very low level,” she says. “To openly accuse somebody without confronting them is a terrible thing to do.”
Burch praises Benton as a consummate professional who has dedicated his life to Miami Shores. “This is a person whose experience and expertise you can’t top,” she says. “We have very strong code enforcement, and it shows. There isn’t a place I go where people don’t praise Miami Shores, how beautifully kept the village is and how pleasant it is.”
BT correspondent John Ise concurs with Burch that the village manager is often an unfair target of residents’ wrath, but also that Benton should adhere to the code, even if he’s exempt. “Tom Benton gets kicked around a lot,” he says. “But him being the village manager, he should have two trees, even if he is grandfathered in. Just do it to keep the peace and set the example.”
Volume 14, Issue 11, January 2017
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