Last week’s Planning and Zoning Board meeting on the “Civil War On Las Olas” could not have been more civil. It lasted until 2 a.m. with more than 80 speakers, many of them exceeding the prescribed three-minute time limit. But all were respectful. No applause or boos – the sort of thing that can happen when tension is high. But that wasn’t surprising. Many of the people on both sides are old acquaintances, have done business, belong to the same clubs and have sat on boards together.
A remarkable aspect of the hearing was that four of the nine board members recused themselves. Some commentators view that as indicative of the cronyism rampant in Broward County government. But it was just the opposite. In other parts of the county, people have maneuvered to conceal conflicts and voted happily for deals that favor their spouses, friends, employers or whomever happened to buy them off.
This was a contrasting study in ethics. The board chairman, Tom Welch, lives in Colee Hammock and is active in the Homeowners Association. Catherine Maus grew up in the neighborhood, and her parents are still prominent residents. Fred Streasau is part of the Stiles Corporation development team, which would build the project. David McTigue’s father owns property in Colee Hammock and actually spoke in support of the church. All four declined to participate.
In any event, there was no vote. Acting Chairman Peter Witschen moved to close the public hearing and postpone until the May meeting the lawyers’ summations and a final vote of the five remaining board members. There were some excellent comments on both sides. Most of the church supporters echoed the theme that the church does wonderful work and should be permitted to continue to do so in an expanded setting. They said the proposed large buildings would improve the neighborhood.
The homeowners were more to the point of this fight. Acknowledging the good works of the church, they argued that the Planned Unit Development was not appropriate for this project and merely an attempt to get around zoning which will not permit such drastic changes to the neighborhood.
Some had done some serious research. There was a scale model of the project, showing its enormous size in contrast to mostly one-story Las Olas stores. Steve Buckley, who grew up in Colee Hammock and still owns several properties there, had measured the acreage of other institutions which had started out in downtown Fort Lauderdale but moved to more spacious locations when they needed to grow.
He cited St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which began on the property of St. Anthony Church but moved west in the early 1960s. He also mentioned Pine Crest School, which was born on what is now the Pine Crest Village apartments off Broward Boulevard just across the street from Colee Hammock’s border, as well as Fort Lauderdale High School, which relocated years ago from the corner of Broward Boulevard and U.S. 1. He asked listeners to envision what downtown would look like if those sprawling institutions were there today. It was arresting stuff.
Yours truly appointed himself score keeper and waited until 1 a.m., when the final speakers lined up. I pointed out that the church supporters came from all over – Plantation, Hollywood, Pompano Beach – but of the more than 50 on that side only a few lived or had property in Colee Hammock. And I estimated that not more than 10 others (coming from the beach and Las Olas Isles) would be impacted on a daily basis by all the traffic this project would create.
In contrast, of the more than 30 speakers on the “home team,” all but three were homeowners or represented property owners in the neighborhood. The other three, among the most eloquent of the night, were leaders from nearby communities – Las Olas Isles and Sailboat Bend – who warned against permitting a PUD and setting a precedent which could damage other tranquil neighborhoods around the county.
Trying to be speedy, I forgot to add that four members of the church who lived in or represented property in Colee Hammock were among those opposing their own church.
During a recess in the hearing, I spoke to an old acquaintance who was supporting the church. I asked him what he thought of the church’s plan to relieve traffic on Las Olas by building a drawbridge from the church across the New River into Rio Vista, where many of its congregation live. He gave me a stunned look before he realized I was putting him on. I just wanted him to know the feeling.