Residents of the small municipality of Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade County discovered last week that the owners of the Village’s largest shopping center, the Bal Harbour Shops, had sued both the Village, and its Vice-Mayor.
Why? Simply because they would not bend to their will.
Filed in Miami-Dade County court against Vice-Mayor Patricia Cohen and the Village of Bal Harbour, the lawsuit is ostensibly about public records.
Residents feel the suit is more about intimidation and bullying than anything else.
For more than three years now, the Shops have been pushing a plan for a $400 million expansion of its mall space, nearly doubling the size of the current square footage and adding close to one thousand new parking spaces. However, after holding several community meetings where they failed to address the increase in traffic that this expansion would create in Bal Harbour, support from Village residents and elected officials remains lukewarm at best.
The Shops have not wasted any time in their efforts to impose their will on the Village. The plans made public by the Shops for their expansion require the acquisition of two properties located on the southwest corner of the mall: one of the properties is the 1940s Church by the Sea while the other one is the Village’s administration building and city hall.
Last Fall, and without warming, the Shops purchased the Church and had it demolished, thwarting efforts to declare it historic. After destroying the Church by the Sea, the Shops turned their attention to the Village Hall.
Unlike the sale of the Church, any sale of city property in Bal Harbour requires voter approval in a referendum.
With three countywide elections scheduled to take place in 2016, including a high turnout general election in November, the Shops demanded instead that the city approves referendum language in a hastily scheduled special meeting of the Village Council March 17, to meet the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections’ deadline to schedule a special election in May.
Things didn’t go well for the Shops almost immediately after they tried to fast track their referendum. In a special meeting of the Bal Harbour Village Council March 4, council members expressed their concerns about the suddenness of this request for a referendum and felt that it did not make sense to discuss the possible sale of village property without their attorney at the meeting. After listening to dozens of residents, three out of four council members decided it was in the best interest of the village and its residents to move the date of the special meeting to April 13, thus derailing any chance of holding a May referendum.
Refusing to accept the Village’s decision, the Whitman family — multimillionaire owners of the Bal Harbour Shops — sent out two emails berating the council members for their actions while also taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook and suing the Village and its Vice-Mayor.
Although the lawsuit claims that Cohen violated Florida public records law for allegedly refusing to provide official communications dealing with the Shops expansion and the land deal for the village property, many residents feel this is a blatant attempt by the developers to bully Cohen and the inhabitants of the town.
According to Juan-Carlos “J.C.” Planas, an attorney representing some of the neighbors affected by the Bal Harbour Shops’ expansion, this move “can only be characterized as harassment.
The Whitmans have sued the Village to intimidate the community and prevent them from contacting their elected officials.”
Neighbors remain adamant that the expansion will have an adverse impact on the small Village’s quality of life, especially when it comes to the projected increase in the numbers of cars traveling to and from the mall, as well as the additional traffic that will be generated along Collins Avenue/A1A during and after construction.
By adding more than a thousand new parking spaces, residents fear that thousands of new vehicles will take over the Village’s roads and make what is an already congested commute in and out of Bal Harbour a true nightmare.
In this battle of David versus Goliath, the residents of Bal Harbour and of neighboring municipalities, are seeing firsthand the type of pressure that developers, backed by their millions, can place on small, local governments.
Fortunately, neighbors are organizing and showing support for their elected officials.
In a regular council meeting March 22, the Village Council, backed up by almost a hundred residents, adopted a resolution to cover the costs of the legal fees incurred by the Vice-Mayor in her defense against the Whitmans’ lawsuit.
It seems that in Bal Harbour, David is getting his sling ready.