Walling Off Reality

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, January 27, 2016 No Comment(s)

Miami Herald

The walls are exceptionally tall, and they are shrouded by lush shrubbery. The shrubbery is obviously there to beautify and lessen the impact of the walls, which otherwise might resemble a prison. That impact needs to be lessened, lest people buying units in the development begin wondering why the walls are so high in the first place. They might wonder what is behind such tall walls.

What is behind them is a vast tank farm; part of the oil storage complex at Port Everglades and it has been there long before the development was built in 1998. The tanks contain the gasoline brought to the port by ship—gasoline which eventually gets pumped into trucks that take it to gas stations where it winds up in your car.

The development on top of the tank farm is called Village East, and it is a good example of a place where no residential housing should ever have been permitted. But, as the Sun-Sentinel reported last week, the development was approved by the city in 1998, even though one of the oil companies beyond the big wall objected to it on the grounds that residents might someday object to the expansion of the storage facility.

The developer, a well-known fellow who is a friend of ours, promised that he would never object to such expansion, but that was then, and this is the “someday” the oil company feared would come. The developer is gone, so his promise is not relevant. The Sun-Sentinel reported that some residents (there are 264 units) are objecting to a plan by Marathon Petroleum Corporation to build a tank to store 6.7 million gallons of gasoline only 90 feet from the development. They say that an explosion of a gas tank would endanger them.

It sure would, and we wonder if sales people told potential buyers of that danger, and especially the fact than an oil company had objected to their development precisely because owners, someday realizing the danger, would object to their business expansion. We guess the sales people did not slap prospects in the face to make sure they understood that dynamite was next door. We also wonder if, because of that big wall blocking their view, some buyers even gave a second thought to what lay beyond the barrier. Perhaps all they saw were nice town homes at a location convenient to busy 17th Street, the airport and the beach.

We change pace now from what might appear to be an anti-stupid development rant. What we really see here is an opportunity for lawyers to open up virtually a new field. We know all the good land use lawyers around here, and they are all fine folks and usually brilliant advocates for their clients when they rush to build on every square foot of land, whether it sits on a powder keg or might be underwater sooner than people think.

The latter is a warning from several prominent area geologists who think sea levels are rising faster than commonly projected, and are appalled that there is enormous new construction taking place at exactly the places (such as downtown Miami) that are most likely to be flooded so often as to be unlivable, in perhaps as soon as 50 years. One hopes the experts are wrong, but it seems folly to ignore them—unless you are a lawyer who can make serious money if their dire predictions come true. Or even threaten to.

Here’s how the gig works. A land use attorney takes on a big job, such as convincing people worried about major proposed developments at Fort Lauderdale’s Galleria Mall or Bahia Mar. They use their skills and their charts and renderings to show that thousands of new residents will not affect traffic, and very tall buildings on the beach will not cast shadows on the sand on afternoons filled with tourists seeking the rays. They say climate change is a fiction (just ask Governor Scott), and sea level rise is nothing compared to the enormous economic benefits, such as tax dollars, which their clients will generate. When they win, and they usually do, here is where the new opportunity for riches appears.

They wait awhile, at least until the check clears, and the new developments are built and sold out, and then they find the people who have moved in and are alarmed by reports, and increasing evidence, that the sea is actually moving in with them, and access to their new homes or businesses is sometimes blocked by flooding. Especially if, as some are convinced will happen, powerful storms wipe out the highway leading to their front doors. This already happened in Fort Lauderdale, a section of AIA collapsed, caused  by rushing tides related to a storm that hit a thousand miles to the north.

Now, the same lawyers who argued to permit the developments, can double dip by rounding up disgruntled buyers and suing the developers they formerly worked for, arguing that no one told their clients (as no one warned of the tank farm next door) of the dangers of the location. They can make money coming and going. If some consider representing both sides of a case to be a conflict of interest, they can point out that their representation came at different times. Who can predict the future, except some mad scientists? And, as Jeb Bush says, stuff happens. This is not a conflict of interest; to the contrary, it is a parallel of interest. There is, of course, ample precedent for switching sides in law. Criminal defense attorneys often start as prosecutors. They know the territory.

We are not picking on land use lawyers; it simply makes sense for those who made the case for the developers, and understand the objections, to have an advantage in presenting the opposite side. They can pull out renderings (such as shown above) which will shock the court.

If it turns out that clients are hard to find, lawyers can always beat the bushes through advertising, preferably in local magazines. They might say that even if you are not a disgruntled buyer, call anyway. You may be eligible for an award. But warn of possible side effects, including high blood pressure, blurry vision, constipation and, in rare cases, death. Ask your doctor if this lawyer is right for you.

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