By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
When Miami Shores Vice-Mayor Daniel Marinberg, who is gay, checked his village email inbox on the morning of March 24, he opened a missive with the subject line: “Fagget” (sic).
The sender, Morgan Nordone, wrote: “Faggets are the filth of the world…You are an animal.”
Miami Shores Mayor Sandra Harris told Florida Bulldog that Nordone sent her an email the same day threatening to kill her and her family. Village detectives are investigating Nordone’s alleged threatening emails, according to Miami Shores Police Cmdr. Kerry Turner.
For more than a year, village officials have been working on proposed changes to Miami Shores’ comprehensive plan, a document that establishes future land uses in municipalities and counties that must be vetted by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity before final approval.
Despite widespread opposition, Marinberg and Harris have championed an amendment that would allow for more commercial development, including a contentious proposal for a townhome and apartment project on 23.5 acres of vacant land near Interstate 95 owned by Barry University, the village’s largest employer.
RAM THROUGH DEVELOPMENT?
Some residents accuse the pair of attempting to ram through the changes before the village’s April 11 election because all six candidates running for three council seats have vowed to vote against the proposed amendment. The village council has five members.
“Most of the council meetings go off the rails and are very contentious,” said Miami Shores homeowner and activist Maureen Duffy. “I lay it at the feet of this council, which has behaved in such an arbitrary way. The council created this divisiveness.”
Indeed, for a large swath of village residents, Harris and Marinberg are public enemy’s numbers one and two.
“I believe with the current tone and the high temperature that is going on, any nut job will feed into it,” Harris said. “We as a collective community need to heal, and we need to return to civility, including me.”
“I think I have been a lightning rod for a lot of the attacks from a vocal subsection of the community,” Marinberg said in a phone interview. “Because they are not achieving what they want on the substance of the issue, they are trying to discredit, bully and harass elected officials.”
ZONE CHANGE POTENTIAL WINDFALL FOR BARRY U.
The controversy has roiled the small-town tranquility of Miami Shores, a village of 11,545 people that encompasses nearly three square miles. At issue is Barry University’s pending deal to sell its vacant land to Lennar, a Miami-based national homebuilder that intends to build 130 townhomes and a garden-style apartment community with 470 rental units.
For that to happen, Miami Shores must change the land’s zoning designation from “institutional” to “institutional/mixed use.” Video recordings of three council meetings since October show the number of Miami Shores residents speaking against the zoning change and the Lennar project overwhelmingly outnumbered supporters. Barry and Lennar representatives also faced stiff opposition during two community meetings in November.
“We’ve had 1,500 folks who signed a petition against the proposed comp plan amendment,” Duffy said. “The residents have really been left out of any meaningful dialogue about these proposed changes. The informational meetings with Barry were nothing more than public relations presentations about what the Lennar project is going to look like.”
When asked for comment, a Barry spokesperson referred Florida Bulldog to a Nov. 30 open letter university president Mike Allen wrote to Miami Shores residents.
In the letter, Allen suggested opposition to the project infringed on Barry’s rights as a landowner. “To deny this right is tantamount to telling homeowners in the village that they can only sell their home for less than market value, and only to a buyer of their neighbor’s choosing,” Allen wrote. “This is fundamentally wrong and unjustifiable.”
Allen also noted that proceeds from the sale will allow “Barry to thrive for decades to come.”
MARINBERG: OPPONENTS WRONG
Marinberg claimed opposing residents have wrongly suggested that the proposed amendment creates height and density increases for commercial development when the changes do the exact opposite by capping heights at less than five stories and limiting multifamily units to 30 per acre.
Residents have made comments at public hearings and online that they are “opposed to other demographics coming into” Miami Shores, Marinberg said. He also claimed that the opponents do not represent the prevailing sentiment of most residents in the village.
“A vocal segment of the community is making it clear that they want no outsiders coming to the village, and they want it to stay exactly as it has been,” Marinberg said. “They have intimidated others not to speak up and to not have their voices heard because of the vitriol.”
Miami Shores’ racial/ethnic composition is a mix. Whites make up 39.1 percent of the population; Hispanics 34.1 percent and blacks 18.4 percent, census figures show.
There are some opponents who have used language with racist undertones, Mayor Harris added. “I tried not to view things that have been said as an African American, but there are people who have used words such as ‘them,’ ‘those people’ and ‘outsiders’ that gives me PTSD,” Harris said. “There are some people [in Miami Shores] that I am done with.”
A SILENT MAJORITY?
Dennis Leyva, a Miami Shores homeowner since 2010 who gathered signatures for the petition, disputed Marinberg’s assertion that residents who support the amendment have been silenced.
“That’s something I have read from the few people in favor of the comp plan who posted comments on Nextdoor,” Leyva said. “They claim there is a silent majority that doesn’t want to attend council meetings. But the village allows residents to submit comments online, and anonymously if they wish. I’ve never encountered this silent majority either online or in person.”
As for Nordone, who popped off by email to Harris and Marinberg, the police are checking him out.
“We take these threats seriously and will not tolerate any threats made against our residents or public officials,” Turner said.
Contacted by email, Nordone did not specifically address the content of his electronic correspondence with the two elected officials. He only wrote: “They are corrupted and I have the evidence.”
Marinberg told Florida Bulldog Nordone is a North Carolina resident who grew up in Miami Shores, and regularly monitors social media community groups about the regular goings on in the village. He believes Nordone fired off the homophobic email after reading criticisms that Miami Shores residents have lodged against him on Facebook and Nextdoor.
TWO COUNCIL RESIGNATIONS AND A RE-VOTE
On Dec. 6, Harris, Marinberg, and then council members Katia Saint Fleur and Crystal Wagar voted 4-1 to approve the amendment on first reading. Council member Alice Burch was the lone dissenting vote. Burch’s colleagues also rejected her motion to reduce some of the intensity in the proposed zoning changes.
Later that month, Saint Fleur and Wagar resigned from the council ahead of a new state law requiring elected officials to resign if they held jobs as lobbyists. Saint Fleur works for Miami-based lobbying firm Converge, and Wagar had recently accepted a job with the Miami office of the national lobbying firm The Southern Group. Wagar’s new employer is also the lobbying firm representing Miami Shores in Tallahassee.
When she took the new gig, Wagar was in violation of another state law that bars public officials from being employed with companies that have contracts with the governments they represent. Wagar stayed on the council long enough to participate in the Dec. 28 vote to appoint Saint Fleur’s temporary replacement, Timothy Crutchfield, who supports the comp plan amendment. Two days later, Wagar resigned from office. She also never publicly informed her constituents that she went to work for The Southern Group.
He and other residents found it odd that Wagar didn’t follow Saint Fleur’s lead, who resigned at a public hearing in mid-December, Leyva said. He noted that the state Legislature passed the lobbying ban for elected officials in April of last year.
“Why are you waiting until Dec. 30 and voting on things that you won’t be around for when it comes back on second reading?” Leyva said of Wagar.
Then came another surprise that fueled residents’ skepticism. The council had to redo its first reading vote on Feb. 21 because the village had not provided proper public notice in local newspapers about the Dec. 6 meeting.
“All these missteps and lack of communication by the village and the council members has created a lot of divisiveness,” Leyva said. “For me, it created distrust and a feeling that this whole process hasn’t been managed properly.”
At the February meeting, more than 40 residents spoke against the amendment, while only five speakers, including Barry’s general counsel, said they were for it. Crutchfield joined Harris and Marinberg in voting to approve the amendment. Wagar’s temporary replacement, Wesley Castellanos, sided with Burch in rejecting it.
Leigh McGowan, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Florida Bulldog the agency has not finished reviewing the amendment the council approved last month. The department has until April 28 to submit its response to the village, McGowan added. It seems unlikely the council will have a second reading on the proposed amendment before the April 11 election. By then, Crutchfield, Castellanos and Burch, who is termed out, will have been replaced by three newcomers.
“I feel like [the current version] is reasonable with the understanding that some degree of development is inevitable, and these are private properties,” Harris said. “I just hope that after the April 11 election, the community will feel their voices were heard and everything will calm down.”