By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — Commercial developments in Miami are exempt from paying park impact fees while homeowners pick up the tab.
Now some community leaders question why.
Those fees are charged to new developments to help pay for the cost of building new parks to maintain a balance of urban space and green space.
Whether it’s an apartment building or a shopping center, critics claim the impact is the same: Open land is gobbled up to make way for buildings and parking lots. This, they say, forces cities to buy protected areas of undeveloped land for the parks, a cost that should be absorbed by all development.
They also point out households aren’t the only ones that benefit from park land. Parks enhance the lives of everyone in the community. They provide a cleaner environment, attractive surroundings and higher real estate values.
A TREASURE: Community leaders say commercial developers should bear more of the brunt of the cost of Miami’s public parks.
Advocate Steve Hagen has been fighting for fairness in park impact fee collection.
“If you build a single family home in Miami, you pay about $6,000 for parks. But if you want to build a two- to three-bedroom condo the payment is a half of that,” Hagen said. “Who needs the park more? A person that may has a backyard or a person that has a condo? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Grace Solares, vice president of Miami Neighborhoods United, agrees it’s unfair to put the burden on the homeowner.
“The poor single-family homeowner is required to pay for impact fees, but commercial developers don’t,” Solares said.
Greg Bush, vice president of the Urban Environment League and director of the Institute for Public History at the University of Miami, said developers should foot more of the bill.
“There are millions of dollars that could have gone to buy waterfront park land that hasn’t been collected by the city,” he told Florida Watchdog. “That means that developers got their way with a lot less cost for a number of years.”
The rise of impact fees
Impact fees in Miami started in the 1980s. Back then, residential and commercial builders paid about 7-cents per square foot for parks, according to an article in the Biscayne Times.
But in 2005, pressured by commercial developers who claimed they weren’t the ones using the parks, the city adopted a flat rate and exempted them from paying park impact fees.
Today, all new residential development units and single-family homes — including townhouses, duplexes and mobile homes — pay anywhere from $4,000 to $8,100 per unit.
Lost revenue from commercial exemptions is only the tip of the iceberg.
Solares said the money being collected for new parks isn’t being spent there. And this, she said, is affecting the population density and quality of life in Miami.
“The percentage of parks per person has declined a lot,” she said.
A study done by The Trust for Public Land shows Miami ranks low in terms of park space in relation to the nation’s other largest cities.
Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff also questions where the money is going. In a 2011 report by the Brickell Homeowners Association, he said he pushed to rectify years of fees paid by Brickell developers that disappeared into Miami’s general fund.
“Sixty-five percent of development in the City of Miami has been in the Brickell area,” Sarnoff said in that report.
There are no new green spaces to show for the greenbacks, he argues.
But Hagen said Sarnoff’s District 2 already has a big share of the city’s parks.
Florida Watchdog tried to contact various city officials to ask them how much was collected for park impact fees and how the money was used. We also wanted to know if there had been any recent audits of the funds.
Requests for comment were sent to City Commissioners Sarnoff, Frank Carollo, Willie Gort, Francis Suarez and Keon Hardemon.
Only Hardemon responed to an email, referring Florida Watchdog to the city manager’s office. No one there responded. Neither did anyone in the communications office.
The zoning department said to talk to the administration office, which sent us back to the zoning office. That office asked for questions in writing, but hasn’t responded to an email in several days.
After digging further, we found a 2010 audit that exposed several issues, including impact fees being used to close budget gaps. The report showed impact fees were not properly calculated, administrative fees were not assessed and collected and excess refunds of impact fees were authorized and disbursed by a zoning administrator.
There also was a lack of written polices and procedures, and an annual review of the impact fees ordinance was not completed and issued to the City Commission.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org or on Twitter @mtoledoreporter.