Yesikka Vivancos  /  AP
Fish hatchery owner Paul Radice holds a koi raised at his operation in Homestead, Fla., where developers are eying farmland and open space for homes.
updated 4/26/2005 9:52:39 AM ET 2005-04-26T13:52:39

To fish hatchery owner Paul Radice, the tropical farmlands sandwiched between the bustling glitz of Miami and the vast Everglades are ideal for his operation because of a development boundary line drawn two decades ago.

The well water, unpolluted by parking-lot runoff, is a perfect natural temperature for his tanks of exotic koi and African cichlids. Traffic is light and there are few strip malls, fast-food joints or other intrusions of urban blight. Roadside stands selling produce such as tomatoes, mangoes and sweet corn dot the only subtropical farm region in the continental United States.

Now, to the dismay of some farmers like Radice, housing developers are snapping up Miami-Dade County’s dwindling open land in hopes of persuading local politicians to push the development line toward the threatened “River of Grass.”

While some farmers favor the proposal because it would allow them to sell their land for a high price, Radice says new residents would “change the character of the area, and they’ll want the area to change with them.”

Should line be moved?
Plans by major developers such as Lennar Corp. and D.R. Horton call for more than 16,000 homes to be built in high-density neighborhoods on land that is now outside the line, known as the urban development boundary. Unless the line is moved, development on that land will continue to be restricted to one structure for every five acres — not what the developers want.

Yesikka Vivancos  /  AP
This former farmland in Homestead, Fla., was sold to make way for a grocery store.
Horton’s proposal, a planned community called “Providence,” envisions more than 5,000 homes, office and retail space, schools and parks on 854 acres.

Battles over urban sprawl are increasingly common around the country, especially in areas where cities have erected no-growth boundaries such as that in Miami-Dade County. What makes the South Florida debate unique is the area’s history as America’s key winter vegetable growing area and its location between the environmentally sensitive Everglades — currently undergoing a 30-year, $8.4 billion federal-state restoration — as well as Biscayne Bay to the southeast and Florida Bay to the south.

Pressure on the line
“The Everglades has been recognized as a unique environmental system in the world,” said Jamie Furgang, Everglades policy associate for Audubon of Florida. “The preservation of the urban development boundary is going to be essential to restoring the quality of the system.”

The proposed changes also pit farmers against each other: those who want the area to remain rural and those who want to sell land for lucrative profits.

Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, said her organization views the boundary as a violation of property rights. Many landowners outside the line say its existence prevents them from getting top dollar for their property, forcing 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.”

The boundary, first created in 1975, has been moved in mostly small segments several times, most recently in 2002 for a 435-acre industrial park. The question for local politicians this time is whether the Miami area’s explosive population growth warrants moving it again.

What to do with people?
Miguel De Grandy, an attorney representing Texas-based developer Horton, said the proposed developments are needed to meet demand, especially with real estate prices soaring in South Florida. He said the project is aimed squarely at middle-class people who are increasingly priced out of owning a home.

“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.”

It’s 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 available land for housing for the next 15 years. He also said more houses mean demand for more government services, possibly meaning higher future 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.”

Study awaited
Most members of the commission say they will wait until completion this fall of a comprehensive study on proper land uses within South Florida’s watershed, which includes the Everglades and Biscayne Bay.

The pro-boundary forces, many joining a coalition called “Hold The Line,” are making their first stand against a proposal by the town of Florida City, on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, to annex nearly 4,300 acres of land near an intersection that thousands of people cross on their way to the Florida Keys.

That would take control of zoning for the land from the county to the city. And one developer has already proposed transforming part of it into 6,000 new housing units, retail shops, offices and a movie complex.

A hearing on the annexation proposal is scheduled in May. Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace insists the annexation and development are separate issues, but 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, a plant nursery owner and pro-boundary activist. “Agriculture doesn’t stand a chance.”

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