Let’s Call For Change

November is coming and campaigns for the municipal elections in Tamarac are making headway, a handful of nonincumbent candidates are succeeding at harnessing community engagement to bring about political change that serves the greater good. They are grasping the sentiments and interests of the community and overcoming the daunting leap of running a grassroots movement with no strings attached to large donors and to the pervasive lobbying exerted by real estate industry players to influence zoning amendments favorable to their avaricious interests.

The new kind of political activism, that we all aspire, is abiding to the best interest of the community and is committed to channel the power conferred to them pursuing collective wellbeing. Simply put, us and them are jointly creating community along the road to their swearing-in ceremony as newly elected commissioners and mayor. Our collective goal is to make Tamarac a better place to live, to thrive, to energize and to proudly pass as a beautiful legacy. This vision existed since the foundation, but the path was lost momentarily. We will start getting back on the trail soon because November is coming.

The origin of Tamarac dates to over half a century ago, when a visionary businessman moved to South Florida to undertake his idea of providing affordable housing with peace of mind, a way of life in close contact to nature and to healthy recreation. To start making his dream come true, Ken Behring acquired land and developed communities cocooned in a peaceful natural habitat, with waterways, wooded areas and amenities for comradeship and recreation between neighbors. As he kept promoting this way of life other like-minded participants joined him and the organic growth of Tamarac got traction. The original residents shared this vision and worked with passion to preserve it in time. For them Tamarac should always be a city for the pleasure of its residents.

But after 55 years it isn’t. In Tamarac, the incumbent commission has not represented the collective interests of the electorate for a while. Over the past decade, a track record of community unfriendly decisions has been paving over the heritage of the people of Tamarac. This pattern of besieged open green space is materializing into a future with much less outdoor space per person, much lesser than designed by the original founders of the city.

While in office, the incumbent city commission has abided by the economic interests of a small group of transitory real estate developers, sellers, attorneys, builders and banks. They are leaving behind a monument to bad urban planning by enabling through official sanction the infill of denser cookie-cutter neighborhoods and, most recently, of industrial multi-story buildings at the expense of quality of life. We have gotten bad architecture for the city that neglects environmental criteria and human factors. It discourages a healthy lifestyle and impacts negatively the collective wellbeing.

The incumbent commission has been enabling a low risk business model with exorbitant financial gains laid by the real estate developers and, at once, ignoring the best interest of the community of taxpayers and their concerns. Some results of this redevelopment-friendly lawmaking are:

  • The traffic is making our commute increasingly unbearable.
  • Many neighborhoods, most frequently the newly infilled ones, report water pressure problems.
  • The overdevelopment is creating too many hard surfaces that contribute to poor drainage of the storm water, making our neighborhoods more prone to flooding. The newly infilled neighborhoods, Central Park and Manor Park, report frequent flooding to the point that the city had to get involved.
  • The incumbent commission is shifting the burden of building and maintaining roads, public services, security and amenities in the newly infilled neighborhoods to its homeowners with no downside for either the politicians or the developers. The new subdivisions’ governance is being outsourced to the latter, but they bear little risk because any blunder will be covered by the homeowners, levied as assessments over the span of many years. Some Central Park residents report to pay $10.000 a year in assessments by their community development district (CDD) and taxes by the county and the city.
  • Fellow residents trying to sell their homes have seen a drop in their property’s desirability and value due to the knowledge of a potential redevelopment of the green space within their community, of the ruling by a CDD or of both occurring simultaneously.
  • Longtime residents are giving up and leaving, while the most recent ones got a taste, rather quickly, of the deficit of livability, let alone pleasure.

If we want to alter this course and get back on the track set by the founders of Tamarac, we must replace the incumbent politicians by representatives that really want to focus in the service to their fellow constituents, that operate with transparency and always start by finding out what they want. Who will only support real estate development that serves the best interests of all constituents, rather than the economic interests of the developers.

Neglecting to do so this November 6th, is auto destructive. Is daunting to imagine our future quality of life if the developers exploit their redevelopment business model in our open green spaces until they decide to move to their next sweet spot many years from now. In this version of the future, with thousands of units of tract housing stacked in subdivisions infilled between patches of grass, with warehouses and multi-story industrial buildings in between the residential areas, Tamarac will be reduced to a dormitory town. What a stark contrast to the vision of the founders!

The original residents of Tamarac knew of a better version of the future. Today while Tamarac has been moving in opposite direction to the original charter, the rest of the world is valuing livability and are engaged in improving it. In the world’s most livable cities the recreational activities are easily accessible, the crime rates are low, and the infrastructure isn’t overused. The existence of natural and outdoor amenities like farmers markets, parks and golf courses, provide positive differentiation, also, the climate and the air quality are key differentiators.

Livability is not a buzzword nor the trend of the hour. Livability is a body of concepts such as sustainability, quality of life, distinctive identity of the place, supply of natural resources and health of the community. It emerged at the end of 1960s and predicts the individual satisfaction with the surrounding environment. Namely, with features like traffic, crime rate, amount of open space, air quality, clean water, employment opportunities, or less tangible ones like cultural expression, sense of belonging, neighborhood preservation, participation, government transparency and the recognition of the finite nature of our ecological environment.

The growing commitment to improving livability, by a variety of actors, has been legitimating the translation of broad ideas into indicators to guide policy making, in the public sector, and decision making about localization, employment creation, insurance and marketing, between others, in the private sector. It must be acknowledged as a vital source of entrepreneurship because cities and regions are increasingly expected to compete for economic activity and the ones with greater livability will have a competitive edge.

The AARP developed a community evaluation guide and offers tools around livability. One of those tools, the Livability Score, “rates the overall livability of a selected neighborhood, city, county, or state on a scale from 0 to 100. It is based on the average score of seven livability categories—housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity—which also range from 0 to 100.” (as per their web site). Tamarac’s livability score ranked below the average for all the Broward County, with its most significant issues being: access to parks, crime rate, traffic congestion, fatal crashes rate, air and water quality, patient satisfaction with health care, job opportunities, income inequality and civic involvement. In all the mentioned subcategories, Tamarac also scored below the country’s averages.

AARP Livability Index – Updated June 2018

Tamarac’s Livability Opportunities of Improvement 

Exploring further the details of the most recent scores for Tamarac in the AARP livability web site is possible to pinpoint the most significant issues that are keeping the city far from realizing its motto of being “The City for Your Life”. Sometime between the foundation and nowadays the focus shifted from the people’s pleasure to narrower circles of influence.

The livability is affected  by our collective voluntary action as active citizens of a civil society, whether we embrace it or not, we have a role in influencing the local government’s accountability and responsiveness to citizen demands. The future livability depends on our choices. Our job is to watch closely the local politician’s public service performance and vote them out when it isn’t working. If we all act as a block and engage in the decision making, then we will advance the people agenda. Not the politicians and definitively not the developers one.

Notwithstanding the crisis of livability that has been unsettling the residents of Tamarac, the incumbent commission, underestimating the voices and downplaying the aspirations of the constituents for their communities, agreed in June of 2018 to stop litigation over open land located in the northeast corner of Commercial Blvd and Rock Island and to sell it to a developer interested in building a 5-story warehouse building. Residents were never informed about the city’s decision to settle out of court, neither were consulted by their representatives about the self-storage solution that the city manager described as “attractive” and “fairly benign” to the Sun Sentinel in September 7th, 2018. The interview with the city manager was published one week after the first disclosure of this whole subject, by the developer/applicant, to the residents of Tamarac and confirms that “the City Commission formally signed off on the settlement agreement in June”.

This open land could have been part of the plan to improve Tamarac’s livability issues, by starting to address the deficit of parks within walking distance. But this simple idea is not realistic with the incumbent commission, as I said in a previous article, the city of Tamarac is not growing greener, instead it is turning browner.

Most of the residents that were in attendance of the neighborhood meeting of August 28th, 2018, found about the ongoing rezoning application through a sign posted, a few days before, in the northeast corner of Commercial Blvd and Rock Island. Many of us started conveying our outrage through social media. Undeniably, the whole community was let down by the city’s insensibility to our aspirations for the areas where we all live. The neighborhoods in the East of Tamarac yearn urgently for greener walkways connecting interesting places. Nobody expected that the city would even consider a self-storage facility adjacent to the residences and less than one mile straight away from the Safeguard Self-Storage site.

The community’s two-day turnaround about their attendance and the fireworks displayed in social media could have been the cause of the change of the venue to the gym of the community center. A group of chairs was set up facing a projector screen. In front of the audience, a lady that later would identify herself as the applicant’s land use attorney. To the left of the audience, Michelle Gomez, vice mayor, current commissioner of District 2 and candidate for mayor, accompanied by Larry Goehrig, candidate for the District 2 commissioner seat. Marlon Bolton, current commissioner of District 1, was standing behind the audience accompanied by Elvin Villalobos and Mike Gelin, candidates for mayor and for the District 2 commissioner seat respectively.

A subtle tension was almost tangible during the attorney’s remarks about the property, the limitation to two options of commercial use defined by the city, the existence of FPL easements and the justification of the proposal of a self-storage facility to the audience, most of whom hated the idea. It was evident that she was unprepared when going through the details of the rezoning application. The attorney said that their request to the city was a change of the land use zoning to commercial, and when a member of the community asked about the current designation, the answer, consulted with the rest of her support team, was some type of residential up to 16 units per acre. She was immediately proven wrong by the very next slide that presented the details of the rezoning application stating a change request from S-1 to MUN. She clarified what MUN stands for, Mixed-Use Neighborhood, but no word was said about S-1. The coding for the recreation district, before the Land Development Code of the City of Tamarac that is effective since July 12, 2018, was S-1. Whilst, MUN (Mixed-Use Neighborhood), is the new coding of a district intended for mixed-use buildings compatible in scale with surrounding residential uses and that integrates upper-story residential and street-level neighborhood businesses. Next she mentioned the need to amend the deed restrictions on the property, that currently is divided on the plat for a fire station, and provided the proposed plan details: ingress location in Rock Island, building footprint is 525.000 square feet, 5-story building designed to look like a 3-story building, two employees by shift and two shifts per day, sixteen parking spaces and four for the loading areas. The conflict unleashed because the attorney repeatedly used the same line to address the concerns of the audience with this proposal: “this is city owned property, the city came down to two options: gas station or self-storage and decided who they want to sell it to, to avoid impacting your homes negatively we are proposing the self-storage because it generates less traffic”.

A neighbor intervened on behalf of her community and expressed why she thinks that this development will impact them negatively: “I live in Central Park which is right next to it, it’s a new community, we have a hard time to get onto the market already because we have very high property taxes, and is very hard to find buyers because most first time home buyers cannot afford the taxes that we paid this year, by having a commercial property next door to our community, I believe as a resident that will affect the value of our property and there is no usefulness. I live there and the only way I can get gas is if I go over the Turnpike down to 441 for a gas station, or drive all the way to 64th, what is that? 5 miles? I’d rather have a gas station because is useful to me and I believe the residents of my community will agree with me”. Then another neighbor from Central Park responded to the attorney’s argument about the vacant status of the property saying: “The vacant property as it stands, does not devalue our property as if there was a storage unit there”.

As the conflict heated up, Michell Gomez moved to the front of the audience and said textually: “The city did not ask for this, I am going to correct you on that one. This came forward because there is a lawsuit pending on the case, the prior owner of the property, there is a big dispute about the use of this property. As you heard, the property has been designated land use fire station only. Despite the desire to build a park and despite the desire to do anything else, fire station only has inhibited us from doing anything as the new owner of the property…”.

Interestingly, there is no such thing as land use fire station only in the Land Development Code of the City of Tamarac, I assume that Mrs. Gomez was talking about the deed restrictions mentioned by the land use attorney. The property is zoned RC-Recreation in the new code, while the fire stations are zoned PF-Public Facilities. I am puzzled by the whole situation, what will the developer do with the property? Build a fire station? Build a park? Nah. Their best scenario is to get the city to rezone it to commercial use. This is the scenario of the obscene profits. Why is the city letting them twist their arm?

Michelle Gomez continued, textually: “old owner wants the property back through litigation, prior owner is the one who sent out a broker to try to get Wawa there, Wawa said no due to the FPL poles. Others have also said no due to the FPL, so I guess, if you don’t mind, they found the storage unit and in negotiations to try to figure out how to settle these long-time losses they said, can we come forward and bring a proposal to the community? So, both the Chait’s and the city said yes, bring this forward to the community…. It is their desire to ask you for your opinion and your input, we are here on behalf of the city to hear you. There will be other meetings about this, this is their meeting, that is why is not at the city hall. This is not our meeting, commissioner Bolton and myself are here to listen to what you have to say. Keeping in mind that they ‘re just trying to give you some initial information and if there are questions that they can’t answer today, I am sure they will get back to you, and the conversation will continue. So please forgive them if they can’t give you everything that you want now, I understand that property values are very important, we live here, please hear them out and ask them the questions but understand that they may have to get back to you on some of it, and also please know, yes there was a vote on this, and the vote will still allow us to come out for discussion, it does not mean that the city has made a final decision, that’s what I ask you on behalf of the city”.

If the incumbent commission approves the construction of the self-storage facility in the northeast corner of Commercial Blvd and Rock Island, developers would have succeeded again at influencing the rezoning of open green space protected by ordinance from development since the foundation of the city of Tamarac. This time in a more cleverly way, giving the city an alibi. A pretext to agree to a settlement that undermines further the property values and the quality of life of the residents of Tamarac. They gave the two acres lot to the city, as a condition to obtain approval, from the Broward County, to pave over the golf courses of the extinct Sabal Palm Golf Club and Monterey Club. They exchanged two acres of land that, due to the zoning and the FPL easements, had a relatively low real estate value, to be able to develop over 700 units of tract housing on the greens of the two golf courses. Now, they have come back with the carrot and the stick to collect outrageous profits from the sale of the property bestowed to the city, that would acquire a much higher value after rezoned to commercial and approved for a 5-story warehouse building.

Marlon Bolton, standing in the same post, requested an opportunity to comment and said textually: “The vice mayor has made some comments that are totally not true. I am not going to talk back and forth with the vice major because we will be violating Sunshine Law. So, bear with me. We met about this topic to talk about a settlement agreement, there was a pending lawsuit, that’s the truth. It was for a fire station, that’s the truth. In the meeting, I said there cannot be a storage unit and the vice mayor’s response to me, in the meeting was, we’ve been waiting too long, let it go and let it be a storage facility. That’s what she said. That is why we are here. In the meeting, the settlement agreement could have been for something else. Could have been subject to a gas station, could have been subject to any type of building we wanted. We are the commission that you have selected in the city. We are policy makers, that means we make the decisions on your behalf. So, anything that’s coming to you has already come to us, and she agreed and four other people, over talked me, and said hey, a storage unit has to go there because that is the deal. I told them, I’ll be very vocal about it and I am here tonight to be very vocal about it. You’ve lied too many times, you are lying to the people and I will not have it on my watch. We do not want a storage facility, we do not want a storage facility, on that corner” ….” Pardon me” …. “the alternative would be to have two likeminded commissioners like myself who would come together with the community and hear the community first” …”Hold on, please let me finish, let me finish please, let me finish my statement and I’ll take my seat”….”The problem with city hall, is that city hall makes decisions, and then comes out to the community and expects that the community should adhere to everything that we say, that has been the status quo for long time, no more. When we are doing projects like this, it should be in the reverse, we come to the community first, get community input and then make the decision afterwards.  There would never had been a storage facility proposal if we’d never agreed to this, and it was four to one, four to one,” …. ”Never you cut me off again when I’m speaking on behalf of the community, so listen, I am done with my piece right now, but this is not over. If you put a storage facility there, that means majority of the commission would have voted for it. I am not voting for it, and let’s see how the vice mayor votes for it, and if she does, your voices will be heard in November”.

Wow! I was speechless then and I am wordless while transcribing Mr. Bolton’s courageous discourse. He said it all and had to push through.

Ilene Michelson, member of the community, and Michelle Gomez had a dialogue about one of the questions raised by Mrs. Michelson.  Illene Michelson said textually: “If you are not going to build a fire station, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t amend section 8, to use it for public use? You have a piece of art that’s plot down on Commercial Boulevard, surrounded by weeds, whereas if you put a passive park there, you could put it there” …. “So, why aren’t you amending the declarations? ….. ”He has no right to that. There is plenty of case law that says: once you get it as a condition of a land use plan amendment it doesn’t matter whether or not you do that use, you have the land” …… “So, you are afraid to be sued? ….. “OK, why aren’t you taking the lawsuit and make sure the city keeps this property? …. “My question is different, here is my question: if you have known for a while that you weren’t going to put a fire station there, why wouldn’t you move forward with an amendment to section 8 that just deleted fire station? You own the property by the note on the plat, you’ve got a quit claim deed from 13th Floor that gave you any interest they may have as a successor of the Chait’s and there is a ton of case law” …. “There are some things that are worth fighting to the death for, and this is one of them”.

One week after, we read the interview with the city manager and learned that “the City Commission formally signed off on the settlement agreement in June”. There have been already two “our meetings, at the city hall” (Mrs. Gomez definition for the City’s Public Meetings) thoughtfully scheduled for the convenience of the community – Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m.

Marlon Bolton shared recently through his Facebook page that the Planning and Zoning Board decided by unanimity not to recommend. Nonetheless, the application will now move to the city commission adoption hearing, next October 24th, 2018 at 9 a.m. Another very convenient “our meeting, at the city hall”. What’s to come has the potential to make history, once again….

A city commission committed to the best interest of the community wouldn’t sell property that’s meant for public open spaces and always, when selling city property, would ensure that the community agrees with its development. A city commission acting with transparency wouldn’t choose who the property is sold to, for how much, or take offers. They would sell all city property through a competitive process, either by sealed bidding or public auction, and would use the community feedback to select the finalist projects.

The incumbent commission chose to sell to Rock Island Storage Partners LLC. This is a clear fact, because one of the requirements to start the rezoning process is proof of ownership or a contract to purchase. The Sun Sentinel’s article mentioned before, reported that the property has been appraised at $750.000. The article also says that the property will be sold for $1.75 million. Favorable rezoning usually provides windfall profits to the landowners. The favorable rezoning in this case is to a newly amended commercial district on steroids. What I mean with on steroids, is that the city amended, one year ago, the previous commercial district B-6 because self-storage facilities were not permitted in it, and district B-6 would be incorporated as part of the new Mixed-Use Neighborhood district (MUN) in the rewritten Land Development Code of the City of Tamarac that is effective since July 12, 2018. The 2-acres property in Commercial Boulevard and Rock Island is being rezoned to MUN, therefore, the incumbent commission started enabling, with a lead-time of one year, the construction of a self-storage multi-story building in the neighborhood’s residential area. Something that was not allowed before in the small-scale commercial district.

Let’s elect leaders committed to work for the community. Empower the new candidates that bring human perspectives, replace the incumbents and make sure that everybody remembers who we were and aspires to rescue what Tamarac was about and its way of life.

November is coming, and we can install a majority in the Tamarac city commission that will only support real estate development that serves the best interests of all constituents, rather than the economic interests of developers and home builders. We need to give ourselves commissioners that will practice full transparency and will take decisions enacted from the participation of the constituents through a process that is trusted by all. The community is not just a step in the application process, that comes after the commission and the developers have prepared the ground, with significant lead-time advantage, for a fast track approval process.

If we want a transformation and to get back on track, we must enable change for good by participating. We must replace the incumbents and start immediately to rescue what Tamarac was about and its way of life.

REFERENCES:

Tamarac Zoning Code Amendment to Permit Self-Storage

Self-storage proposal could mean the end of bitter saga over Tamarac land

AARP Livability Index Tamarac FL

AARP Livability Index Broward County FL

Marlon Bolton Facebook Page – Update on development Rock Island and Commercial Boulevard

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