Miami Beach Voters Face Important Referendum Items on August Ballots

Voters in Miami Beach will have to wait until November to vote for a person in the special election to fill the vacancy left by the sudden death of late Commissioner Mark Samuelian. And the really good questions, like what to do with the historic Deauville Hotel (more on that later) will be taken to voters in November.

But there are six referendums on the August primary ballot in Miami Beach to swap land for a new community health center, change residency requirements, make it harder for developers to increase density and easier for owners of apartment hotels to convert to 100% long-term residential.

Oh, and they’re being asked to name a park.

There are also already two brand new political action committees to promote a yes vote on two of the more developer-friendly questions.

Commissioner Alex Fernandez is chairman of the For Our Miami Beach Quality of Life PAC, filed earlier this month, which will urge a yes vote on referendum 4, which would provide incentives for owners of apartment hotels in the South of Fifth area to convert their transient rental properties to full-time residential projects. Those incentives include more density and additional height — between 10 and 20 extra feet — but owners must agree not to rent any units short-term, or for less than six months.

This referendum was originally sponsored by Samuelian to address seven apartment hotels that were approved before a ban was imposed last year after long-term residents complained about noise and crime. It gives owners 0.25 extra floor-area ratio — meaning a 10,000-square-foot property would receive 2,500 more internal square feet. If approved by voters and applied by all seven properties, the change would add almost 14,000 square feet of extra residential space or about 32 additional units. Owners must decide by 2025 to take advantage of the incentives.

The other PAC, Together For Community Health and a Resilient Miami Beach, was formed in June to promote a yes vote on referendum 5, which asks voters to approve a land swap and density increase in South Beach so developers can build a mixed-use structure at the site of the current Miami Beach Community Health Center, half of which is closed to the public due to structural disrepair. They will also build a new and improved community health center less than a block away (land swap part). Developers want to go up to 180 feet on the mixed-use building. But they want voters to approve a floor-area ratio increase from 2.0 to 2.6 in a three square block zone between Alton and West avenues and 5th and 8th streets.

Isn’t that where developer Russell Galbut is building the Five Park condos? And didn’t he just get development rights to a hotel next door?

Commissioner Ricky Arriola sponsored this referendum and Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins has proposed including a county library branch on the second floor of the new health center facility.

Fernandez said he has nothing to do with that PAC, even though his face is on a mailer that landed this week urging a yes vote on the question.

“I join my colleagues in supporting the new modern facility for the Miami Beach Community Health Clinic but I am not associated to the entity that distributed that piece,” he texted Ladra after she asked him about it.

The chairman of this PAC attorney and former State Rep. JC Planas, who is also the registered agent for both new PACs. Together for Community Health has already collected $72,500 — with $37,500 coming from Terra International Development and $35,000 from SMK Asset Management, which is owned by Galbut. It has spent $10,400 of that on a public opinion poll by the Berkely, California-based Change Research.

We won’t know until the next campaign finance report comes in how much they spent on the mailer, which is a little bit disingenuous because it does not necessarily have the full support of the unanimous commission.

“I never authorized that mailer,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. “I voted to put it on the ballot but that doesn’t mean I support the project.”

She is leaning toward it, however. “The community is getting an excellent public benefit and the developer is following our laws,” Rosen Gonzalez told Ladra, saying that she would vote for it if residents want it.

She’s definitely going to promote a yes vote on referendum 6, which she sponsored to close what she called a loophole that lets developers increase floor area ratio without having to go to voters. There’s no PAC yet for this one. Oh, one is coming for a no vote — because developers won’t like it.

If approved, the measure would require a voter referendum before the city can “vacate” any streets or public property that developers can then use to increase the density and heights of their projects. When a city vacates a street, it gives a public roadway or alley over to a private property owner and/or developer who can then calculate that square footage into their build-out formulas. This allows developers to increase the size and height of buildings without having to go to voters, which Miami Beach law requires they have get approval from for any other “floor area ratio” increase.

Gelber has opposed this measure, saying months ago that it is a good tool to use for some projects. He just loves to go around voters.

But the practice also has the stigma of being connected, possibly, to the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside last year. The city of Miami Beach agreed to vacate 87th Terrace to the developers of a condo tower adjacent to the Champlain in exchange for $10 million to fund the city’s beachwalk. But a lawsuit from victims and their families suggests that the deal allowed construction too close to the Champlain property.

The other three questions are not going to be as polemic:

  • Referendum 1 asks voters to make the final decision on the name for a newly opened 3-acre public park between Alton Road and West Avenue from 6th to 8th streets. The first name proposed “Sunset Park” got the most votes in an online poll, but later commissioners changed their support to “Canopy Park.” The park was a tradeoff promised to residents when the development of the Five Park condo tower was approved. It opened in May under the name Canopy Park and features pedestrian trails, a bike path, outdoor gym and dog run as well as the sales office for Five Park residences. Huh? Maybe call it Condo Park then?

  • Referendum 2, sponsored by Rosen Gonzalez, will ask voters to require that the city’s Board of Adjustments, which hears applications for land use and zoning changes, include an architect among the seven members. Currently, the appointed board is comprised of two citizen members at-large and five members who represent any of the following professions: Law, architecture, accounting, financial consultation and general business. Easy yes. >

  • Referendum 3, sponsored by Samuelian before his death, would require political candidates in the city to provide actual proof of residence prior to qualifying. Currently, the law requires only that candidates sign an oath, swearing they’ve lived in Miami Beach for at least a year. Samuelian sued last year to have an opponent disqualified and a judge ruled that Fabian Basabe did not meet the residency requirements. If approved, future candidates will have to provide a Florida I.D., voter’s registration card, tax receipt or lease agreement when qualifying. Easy yes.

Early voting starts Aug. 8 and ends Aug. 21 at Miami Beach City Hall and the North Shore Branch Library. There will be vote-by-mail drop boxes at both sites. The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department is Aug. 13 at 5 p.m. More voter information — including a sample ballot — is available at the city’s website.

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