The pendulum of city staff dictating the future of Coral Gables hit a snag when Commissioner Mike Mena at the December 10th commission meeting brought up an ordinance from 1988 regarding the construction of sidewalks when you do an improvement to your home.
The ordinance from 1988 states that if you do improvements of $15,000 or 600sq ft on your property, you must pay to construct a sidewalk. However, if the street does not already have sidewalks, you must sign a covenant that runs with the land to build one once the majority of the street is ready.
It could take decades before the majority of a block updates their homes to trigger this ordinance. In addition, the property owners may not want sidewalks on their street to begin with.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t really like that mechanism for addressing sidewalks.” said Mena.
Sidewalks have always been a contentious issue in Coral Gables said Mayor Valdes-Fauli. Property owners specifically look for homes that don’t have sidewalks, while just the opposite is also true.
Aesthetics is what makes The City Beautiful, yet city employees have been at odds with portions of the city that don’t meet their view. A special webpage was created for this topic alone citing sources such as AARP and The Federal Highway Administration.
“Whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with sidewalks. If we’re going to do them, I think the city can and should pay for it.” said Mena.
There is an existing process in place for streets that want sidewalks as part of the Neighborhood Enhancement Program. The City will fully fund sidewalks on collector roads and 50 percent of sidewalk installation costs on local residential streets. To make it even easier for proponents of sidewalks, there was a reduction the voting threshold from two-thirds to just 50 percent in order to construct sidewalks for non-collector roads.
“I kind of view this as a backdoor tax on residents when they may or may not even want it.” added Mena
Assistant Public Works Director Sustainable Public Infrastructure Division, Jessica Keller presented the discovered 1988 ordinance in 2018 during a push to add sidewalks throughout the city. The Commission was caught off-guard and confused as the item was joined in with a transportation board resolution. Then Director of Public Works Ed Santamaria flexed his experience with the commission to save the discovered ordinance from extinction.
In addition to dusting off this old ordinance, staff pushed upon a zero-concurrency policy for adding sidewalks on collector streets (San Amaro, Granada, Riviera, University Dr., Biltmore Drive, etc). Zero-concurrency meaning, no voting from property owners required.
For 36 years, the city says it has never called in a covenant regarding sidewalks. But since the 2018 implementation, commissioners have received feedback from concerned and disgruntled homeowners when doing an addition or improvement that triggers a covenant.
Now Assistant City Manager, Ed Santamaria, pushed back on Mena saying he didn’t want to eliminate the ordinance. Santamaria suggested to increase the threshold to a ‘level 3’ alteration.
City Manager Peter Iglesias said the city sees about 15 ‘level 3’ alterations a year.
“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” asked Mena, as Mayor Valdes-Fauli, Commissioner Pat Keon and Commissioner Fors, Jr. chimed in saying they agreed with Mena.
“My thinking is that we really need to look at this complicated issue and get the direction from you.” said Santamaria.
Mena quickly interrupted saying “Which is why I put it as a discussion item today….”.
“I would get rid of it.” said Keon, adding that there’s a special assessment process for streets that want sidewalks on their street, referring to the Neighborhood Enhancement Program.
“I agree it’s not equitable.” said Vice Mayor Vince Lago in regards to the ordinance adding that he too sees it as a hidden tax.
In a unanimous vote, the commission agreed to have the City Attorney bring back wording to revoke the dated ordinance all together. It will be head on first reading with further discussion at the January 14, 2020 commission meeting. If eliminated all covenants on record would be null and void.
Sources tell Gables Insider that members of the commission are growing frustrated in dealing with certain staff on divisive issues such as sidewalks and bicycle lanes when there is so much to do and accomplish. Commissioners are said to be sending clear signals to the city manager’s office but he has yet to take any action in several departments. Iglesias has been City Manager since September 2018.