Government By Civic Association? Maybe.
What started out as separate neighborhood protests over Fort Lauderdale development appears to be coalescing into a movement that could change the political dynamic of the city. The three battles are in Colee Hammock, Idlewyld and Coral Ridge are quite different, but community leaders in the three neighborhoods are supporting each other in efforts to protect their quality of life.
The Colee Hammock dispute, which we coined “Civil War on Las Olas” is over the First Presbyterian Church’s plan to use a PUD to greatly expand the church along Las Olas Boulevard and the neighborhood just to the south. The plan includes a “family center” which, despite the church's repeated assurances, sounds suspiciously like a school and a five-story parking garage on Las Olas. Idlewyld’s mission is to stop the proposed Bahia Mar Marina redevelopment, which it contends is grossly out of scale and will greatly impact traffic in the area and destroy quality of life on the beach and the exclusive just across the Intracoastal.
Quite different is the situation in Coral Ridge, where neighbors of Cardinal Gibbons High School object to tall lights at the football field.
Jackie Scott, a Colee Hammock resident who has been active in community affairs for almost 30 years, calls the current situation unprecedented. She says:
“I don’t remember since the early 1980s any time that we had three different neighborhoods under pressure from development at the same time, with what appears to be very weak support from the commissioners to protect them.”
Scott has been a leader in rallying neighborhoods to oppose the Planned Unit Development concept (PUD), which is being used in both the First Presbyterian Church and the Bahia Mar projects. Neighbors view PUDs as a way for developers to circumvent existing zoning to build inappropriately large projects. To date, 17 civic associations are on board in the effort to have the city declare a moratorium on PUDS until the impact of such developments can be studied.
Mary Fertig, president of the Idlewyld Improvement Association, which initiated the moratorium movement, has joined Scott and others in the effort to bring the various groups together.
“We’ve received a wonderful reception,” Fertig says. “People have concerns about over development and preserving the environment, their tree canopy and quality of life. The response shows that everybody has the same concerns. They’re all worried about too much saturation. How much more can we handle and still maintain the quality of life that we came here for? I can’t remember anything like this happening. It’s not like all of Las Olas got together, it’s the whole city.”
“The culture of the city has drastically changed, and people are waking up and saying how did this happen," Jackie Scott adds. “When you look at the history of successful elected officials, people like Jim Naugle and Rob Dressler, they came from grassroots. Now we have a commission that’s totally different.”
One of the things the community activists are pushing is an unbiased study of the traffic implications of new developments.
“We’re asking that the city do its own traffic studies from scratch, not just accept the developer’s study,” Fertig says. “In the long run that can only benefit the city.”
The Bahia Mar and First Presbyterian Church matters have not yet reached the city commission, but neighbors opposed to the projects have an ominous sense that both have been orchestrated from the beginning. In the church vote, the Planning and Zoning Board had four members forced to recuse themselves on the grounds of possible conflicts of interest. Only five of the nine members voted last month. All five got religion, all voting for the church. Curiously, a similar proposal was voted down unanimously several years ago.
Although civic leaders are cautious in saying so before the final commission votes, they are clearly implying that they can vote too, against commissioners who run on platforms of supporting neighborhoods, and forget those pledges once in office. There is ample precedent for such political activity. Cindi Hutchinson, who served on the commission for nine years before dropping out of the mayor’s race in the last election, first came to office to oust a commissioner viewed as too close to developers. Ditto Christine Teel, who ran as a community preservation champion in the Coral Ridge area and served two terms before losing to former police chief Bruce Roberts.
The emerging alliance of civic groups transcends other factors. The Coral Ridge-Cardinal Gibbons fight is an example. According to published reports, the Coral Ridge community is divided on the lights. Those living near the football field are leading the fight. Others support the school. Many people in other civic associations are friends of the school, and sympathetic to Gibbons, which moved to its location in the early 1961 and has played football almost as long, but not at night under lights. At the time Coral Ridge was a developing neighborhood and many of those opposing the school had not arrived. But the attitude that neighborhood folks should stick together appears to be growing.
That’s especially true when voices as energetic as Scott’s and Fertig’s explain that if Fort Lauderdale’s beach becomes impassable near Las Olas Boulevard and the church’s expansion clogs up the boulevard at the other end, all the people living on the beach, the Las Olas Isles and Victoria Park are going to feel the impact.
The community leaders sense that public opinion is on their side. So is much of the press. Dan Christensen, whose Broward Bulldog blogs have been picked up by the newspapers, has covered the zoning struggles and the Cardinal Gibbons story in a balanced way. Other bloggers, such as Buddy Nevins’ Broward Beat and Bob Norman’s Daily Pulp in New Times Broward, have stridently condemned both the Bahia Mar and First Presbyterian Church projects. The neighbors in both instances wonder if city hall is listening.
Says Mary Fertig: “I don’t know how a city planner can approve that parking garage at an intersection that’s already so congested. You don’t even have to talk about neighborhood compatibility. It’s a question if we can even get in and out of our homes.”