October 31, 2014

Around the State

David Villano | 7/1/1999
Trouble in Paradise
With the outside world lapping at its shores, an enclave of million-dollar condos debates its future.

Even an "Island Without Bridges," as Miami-Dade County's ultra-exclusive Fisher Island bills itself, is not immune to urban development battles. In the past two years, a high profile civil war has erupted on this 216-acre community of multimillion-dollar condos over how much growth the island can handle. At least two lawsuits are working their way through the courts, and one leading homeowner-turned-activist has been slapped with a 90-day suspension from the country club.
The proletariat must be smirking.

With new condominium units selling for an average of nearly $2 million apiece, Fisher Island is one of the most expensive chunks of real estate in the U.S. Once the winter home of William and Rosamund Vanderbilt, the island is accessible only by ferry. Among the notable homeowners: Oprah Winfrey, Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and tennis star Boris Becker. Where else, promotional brochures ask, can you find the seclusion and security of a tropical island with the hustle and bustle of an urban metropolis only 15 minutes away?

But that hustle and bustle is getting a bit too close for some residents. Fisher Island's 563 condo units were built a few at a time over the past 14 years. Early buyers enjoyed the virtual run of the island. The country club's golf, tennis and dining facilities were rarely visited. Today, island life is radically different. The number of year-round residents is increasing. So is the number of hotel visitors and non-resident club members -- off-islanders who invade the beaches, courts and restaurants, buzzing along the island's narrow roads with cars brought in by ferry.

Parking, some residents say, is a nightmare. Some complain of fire and other safety concerns brought on by increased visitation. Indeed, last March the Miami-Dade County Commission ordered traffic and fire-safety studies.

Whatever the studies reveal, some residents insist, island life will only get worse. Slated for construction: 315 additional condo units. Concerned that their island paradise is slipping away, a group of disgruntled residents filed suit last year alleging that Fisher Island's developers had fundamentally altered the "car-free, care-free" development concept promised to early buyers. "This is a (development plan) approved more than 10 years ago," says attorney Ronald Shapo. "We believe it should be looked at again."

No peace in sight
Fisher Island executives scoff at the charge. John Melk, chairman of Fisher Island Holdings, the development partnership that acquired the island a year ago from MBL Life Assurance, says the island's original master plan -- which all buyers were welcome to review -- called for 1,200 condo units. If anything, he says, the developers should be applauded for voluntarily reducing that total by more than 300. Melk says non-resident club memberships will be reduced upon build-out, but now are needed badly to offset the staggering costs of maintaining the facilities.

With construction on the remaining units expected to last up to six years, the debate threatens to drag on. Meanwhile, homeowners have fallen into one of three camps: those who approve of the current building plan, those who oppose all new development and those who favor the maximum allowable build-out as a way of reducing costs and fees. Discourse has not always been civil. One group hired a public relations firm to promote its cause. And in May, island resident Isidore "Skip" Pines was notified by the club's seven-member board of directors that his club privileges had been suspended for 90 days. Among his indiscretions: circulating protest leaflets without board approval and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Save Fisher Island."

Pines, who made his fortune selling Hebrew National hot dogs, lobs his own charges. He says he is continually harassed by management. Worse, he insists, one of the island's development partners tried to run him over with a golf cart. "There's such hatred around here you could cut it with a knife," says Pines.

In the News

Fort Lauderdale - Pan Am, the airline that will not die, moved its headquarters from Fort Lauderdale to Portsmouth, N.H., where it hopes to operate as a regional carrier offering both charter and scheduled service. The company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings last summer, after being purchased by Guilford Transportation
Industries.

Equipment-leasing company NationsRent (NYSE-NRI) canceled its merger agreement with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Rental Service Corporation. The merger would have created the industry's second-largest company. The deal fell through after industry leader United Rentals, based in Greenwich, Conn., made an unexpected cash bid for Rental Service Corp.

Juno Beach - Continuing its aggressive expansion outside of Florida, electric energy holding company FPL Group (NYSE-FPL) signed an agreement to build a natural gas-generated power plant in Bellingham, Mass. Since the start of the year, FPL has announced plans to build plants in Texas, Washington and Brazil.

Miami-Dade County - A Taiwan-based maker of scooters, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, Keen Perception Industries, is opening an office in Miami-Dade to service its Latin American markets. The company expects to hire 20 people locally.

The latest official charged in the county's ongoing crackdown on fraud and corruption is Bill Cutie, Miami-Dade parks director. He is charged with misconduct stemming from the disappearance of $1.6 million in trees earmarked for public landscaping projects. He denies the charges.

After threatening to relocate its headquarters from Miami-Dade, international cargo carrier Fine Air Services has struck a deal to stay in the county. The company, which will receive economic incentives worth close to $850,000, also has announced it will add about 250 positions to its workforce of 1,000 over the next three years.

Two local companies announced plans to expand operations and add employees. Badia Spices, a worldwide seller of spices marketed to Hispanic and African-American consumers, will move to a new 37,000-sq.-ft. facility and create 25 new jobs. And BRB Cabinets, a maker of prefabricated cabinets, will move to a new 43,000-sq.-ft. facility within Miami-Dade's recently designated North Central Enterprise Zone. The company will hire 10 new employees.

A judge has ordered Miami-Dade County to let voters in two unincorporated neighborhoods decide whether they want to govern themselves. The decision paves the way for elections within 90 days for residents of the Doral and Palmetto Bay areas. County officials fear other areas will follow, leading to an exodus of Miami-Dade's wealthier communities from county government.

South Florida - Alabama-based Colonial Bank is laying off 35 employees after consolidating operations at its branches in Miami, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The company, which entered the region in early 1997, operates 16 south Florida branches and expects to open five more.

Two national retailers, J. Riggins and Wild Pair, will cease operations and close 43 stores statewide, including 27 in south Florida. J. Riggins, which sells young men's clothing and Wild Pair, a shoe retailer, are both owned by Boston-based Edison Brothers Stores, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

Overheard

Wayne Huizenga is not used to being disappointed by his company's share price, but there's no getting around the fact that stock in AutoNation (NYSE-AN), the former Republic Industries, lately has been a real dud. The state of the stock price and how to improve it was the topic at AutoNation's recent shareholder meeting in Fort Lauderdale. The best-received idea was a proposal to spin off AutoNation's growing Internet car sales business into a separately traded tracking stock. One thing Huizenga did brag about was AutoNation's Mile High Project, which involved branding all of the company's new car dealerships in the Denver area with the AutoNation name and switching to no-haggle prices en masse. The company reported hefty increases in sales and market share for the first quarter, although competitors sniped that success came at the expense of margins. Why is this important? The Mile High Project is coming to Florida.
Co-CEO Steven Berrard told Florida Trend that AutoNation will likely try the rebranding/repricing effort in Florida this year or next. Berrard wouldn't be more specific about exactly where in the state, although he did say it won't be south Florida. After south Florida, the Tampa area is AutoNation's biggest Florida market.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Southeast, Business Florida

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