News: Second Thoughts

Shul School Re-thinks Zoning Change Request.

A Miami Beach synagogue and its Montessori School have asked the City of Miami Beach to withdraw a zoning application that critics claimed would infringe on the integrity of a nearby, historic neighborhood.

“Basically, the school, through its attorney, asked for the withdrawal of a referral to the city commission of the request for a zoning change,” said Acting Planning Director Tom Mooney. “We drafted a memo for the April 23 commission meeting agenda, advising the commission of the request and the city commission still needs to act on the request.”

If the request had eventually been approved, it would have extended a multi-family class of zoning to include 1729 Lenox Avenue, a property owned by Beth Shmuel and which has been previously categorized in the single family zoning designation. The zoning change would then permit Beth Shmuel to seek a conditional use permit for expanded use of the property as part of a Montessori School component of the synagogue. Both proponents and critics of the plan agree the proposed change is to expand the potential student base of the school.

The Miami Beach City Commission must officially withdraw the request, as the City was the official applicant for the zoning change, acting on behalf of the synagogue – something not entirely uncommon, according to Mooney.

However, Mooney also told SunPost months prior to the request to withdraw the application that such particular types of zoning changes are, indeed, uncommon.

“It’s not common to see single family rezoned to multi-family,” Mooney told SunPost.

City entities seemed to look dimly on the proposed change to the City’s zoning map.

A February 25th staff report from Mooney to the Planning Board was hardly an endorsement for the proposed extension of the multi-family zoning designation into the currently single family home zoned neighborhood.

The report stated that of 13 review criteria considerations, the proposal was not consistent in nine, partially consistent in three and consistent in just one category – that the proposed change would not substantially reduce light and air to the area. Otherwise, the report was not generally supportive of the change.

Of the criteria the proposal didn’t meet in the staff report, the most impactful might well be the first – whether or not the proposed change was consistent and compatible with the comprehensive plan and with and any applicable neighborhood or redevelopment plans.

In response, Mooney asserted the proposal not consistent. “The proposed future land use map change and zoning map change would only be consistent if the proposed amendment of the Comprehensive Plan is approved,” according to Mooney. “Additionally, the property is located within the Palm View Local Historic District, which was established in 1999, with the purpose of protecting and preserving the district’s stock of ‘contributing’ buildings, which includes the subject property, while also allowing for appropriate infill development to occur. Additionally, the proposed re-zoning would modify the symmetrical boundaries of the RS zoned lots.”

Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board took a similar position, although perhaps for different reasons given its different purview. The HPB unanimously advised against the zoning change following the Planning Department staff report.

“In a nutshell, it’s a residential neighborhood that has been designated as historic and it is almost completely made up of single family homes,” HPB Chair Herb Sosa told SunPost. “Several years ago, when it was designated as historic, the intention was to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood. Encroaching on that neighborhood is not good for the neighborhood or for historical districts; it would only benefit the applicant pursuing their own goals.”

Sosa made clear at the time that neither he nor the HPB are opposed to the shul’s desire to expand capacity and serve the community. “We respect their right to do that, but I think they have plenty of other opportunities to expand the school,” he told SunPost. “They want to use the single family home for additional classrooms, but that’s not something to do.

“We want to stress that we are in support of the school and the temple and we want to see them grow and flourish, but not at the expense of a historic neighborhood,” Sosa continued.

The zoning change would infringe on the historic Palm View neighborhood, many neighbors feel and they did not approve of encroaching commercialism in the single family home community. Some subsequently hired Beach attorney Kent Harrison Robbins to help stave off the plan.

“This has all been about maintaining the integrity of single family home districts in Miami Beach,” Robbins said. “Historically, the neighborhoods are for single family homes and that’s how it should remain.”

Robbins said he did not know what would happen when the city commission is presented with the request to withdraw the application. He had previously complained that city hall had been “playing games” with paperwork in regard to the zoning change request.

Beth Shmuel President Becky Cohen, who previously spoke with SunPost on behalf of the proposal to benefit the school, did not respond to a request to comment on the request to withdraw the zoning change application.

About Michael W Sasser

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