Time to Stack the Rifles?

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, May 15, 2012 No Comment(s)

It has been more than a year since the Civil War on Las Olas was reported here. The war ended, we think, quite some time back, but there has been no formal surrender, no stacking of rifles, no affectionate farewells to those brave veterans of so many battles.

Rather, the dispute between the Colee Hammock Homeowners Association and the First Presbyterian Church over the church’s expansion plans for property it owns on Las Olas Boulevard might be described as a truce. The church withdrew its original plans, the first of which actually looked like a fort – a stark, tall slab-sided building, which needed only guns protruding from portals to qualify as a genuine tourist attraction, claiming to be where Fort Lauderdale got its name.

The second plan was considerably more aesthetic, but it still struck Colee Hammock neighbors as unseemly large for a block in which most buildings were one or two stories high. It was also accompanied by a request for a planned unit development (PUD), which neighbors saw as a way to circumvent normal zoning laws.  A PUD gives a developer great latitude in what it can do. Basically, it throws out zoning.

It just wasn’t the threat of what appeared to be a school in the heart of one of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods that alarmed the nearby homeowners.  It was the precedent it would set. Once such a large structure were permitted, it was a sure bet that adjacent land owners would run to the city commission with equally tall, or taller buildings, shouting “me too.” That’s the way it works.

The neighbors were already upset that parking for church services on Sundays closed off streets south of Las Olas and spilled into the nearby neighborhoods, one of the most pleasant, and convenient, in the city. And north of Las Olas, there has been continuing concern that employees and visitors to restaurants and other businesses along the boulevard have been parking on the oak-canopied residential side streets, sometimes depriving home owners from a spot to park in front of their own homes.

It has been spreading for years block by block. The residents have responded by planting their swales to discourage parking. As this is being written, the owner of one of the most impressive homes, a full three blocks north of Las Olas, is reacting dramatically. His home is a walled enclave with spectacular landscaping. Years back he bricked his swale, most attractively. Now he is in the process of putting planters among the bricks to discourage parking.

There have been other consequences to the civil war. Anticipating a legal fight, Colee Hammock raised a war chest, including significant gifts from some of the more important names in the city. Jackie Scott, president of the Colee Hammock Homeowners Association, and a long-time champion for preserving her neighborhood, recently ran for the city commission against Romney Rogers. She lost. The election was not close, but she did very well in Colee Hammock and its adjacent neighborhoods, winning 64 percent of the vote. The mere fact that she ran sent a message.

There have been indications that the First Presbyterian Church got the message some time back. Members of the congregation let it be known that they weren’t happy with the big expansion, or the attempt to bulldoze it through. In subtle ways, elected officials urged the church to seek accommodation with the neighbors. Leaders of the church, last year accused of arrogance in trying to push their plans, have become notably gracious in dealing with the community.

In that spirit, there is a meeting Thursday night of the homeowners to hear the revised proposal from the church. By all accounts, the plan works for the church and the neighbors. It may be time to stack the rifles.

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