Court Rules in Favor of Beach Towing Over Developer of Sunset Harbour Project

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Court Rules in Favor of Beach Towing Over Developer of Sunset Harbour Project:

The developer claimed the tow company was operating illegally and should be shut down

For the better part of four years, Deco Capital Group and Beach Towing have been involved in a bitter fight after the tow company challenged Deco Capital’s proposed development across the street in Sunset Harbour and allegedly sought payment to not hold it up.

According to a Miami Herald article from 2016, three of the lots in Deco Capital’s proposed development parcel were previously owned by Beach Towing and contained a deed restriction to prevent competitors from using those lots as a parking lot or storage yard or for a garage or towing business. The article quotes an investor in the luxury residential project who said the tow company sought payment to rescind the deed restrictions and “get the project approved” with a requested variance for a increase in height from the 50 feet allowed to 90 feet.

Deco Capital fought back claiming Beach Towing has been operating illegally under the City’s zoning code and filed suit to have them shut down. This week, a court disagreed and the request was denied.

Since 1986, Beach Towing has operated an automobile storage and towing company at 1349 Dade Boulevard. The tow company began operations when the property was within an Intensive Commercial District (C-6). Three years later, the area was downzoned to Commercial Medium Intensity (C-5). Since then, Beach Towing has been grandfathered in, allowed to operate as a legal, non-conforming business.

Sunset Land Associates, the Deco Capital entity developing the property across the street, claimed Beach Towing was never a legally permitted business under the old code and should have been operating with a Conditional Use Permit. Since it wasn’t approved as a conditional use under the old code, they argued it was not legally established prior to the adoption of the present code.

In an opinion written by Administrative Judge Lisa Walsh for the Appellate Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court, the Court disagreed saying, “By the plain language of [the City Code], Beach Towing’s storage facility fits within the defined permitted use” of an automobile and truck storage facility in the former code. 

With regard to the towing use, Walsh wrote, “Petitioners have seized upon language contained in the current opinions of the Planning Director that towing uses are ‘consistent with’ and ‘related to’ the truck and automobile storage land use” permitted in the old code. By claiming towing is not a directly permitted use, Deco Capital argued Beach Towing needed a Conditional Use Permit in order to operate a towing business there.  

“We disagree,” Walsh wrote. She cited case law that “as a general rule [zoning laws] are subject to strict construction in favor of the right of a property owner to the unrestricted use of his property” and “words used in a zoning ordinance should be given their broadest meaning when there is no definition or clear intent to the contrary and the ordinance should be interpreted in favor of the property owner.” [Emphasis in ruling.]

“Under this broad interpretation favoring property owners, ‘storage garages’ must be construed in favor of Beach Towing, and thus no conditional use permit was required under the Former Code, because automobile storage and towing service operations were a permitted use” in both the former and present code.

“Further, although the word ‘towing’ is not contained in district C-5 or C-6, this does not prohibit a towing company from operating its car storage on the land zoned within C-5/C-6,” Walsh wrote. “‘Towing’ occurs offsite, while automobile and truck storage occurs on the land.”

“We find no error in the City’s determination that Beach Towing's automobile storage and towing service operation” was operating legally within the former code and, thus, is a legal, non-conforming operation.

“Both the present and former City Planning Directors have consistently interpreted the City Code for more than 30 years to permit multiple storage and towing companies within districts C-5 and C-6 of the earlier Code,” she noted in denying the request to rule Beach Towing was operating illegally.

Deco Capital principal Bradley Colmer did not respond to a request for comment.

Beach Towing attorney Ralph Andrade said in an email, "The Court's ruling puts an end to the developer's antics and tantrums to put us out of business. We stood up to a greedy bully developer and won. A victory for the little guy. We have been servicing Miami Beach since 1977 and look forward to continuing that tradition for another 40 years and giving back to those most in need in our community."

Footnote: In December 2018, with the legal battle unresolved, the developers scrapped plans for the height increase and were approved for a lower-scale, five-story development in the 1700 block between Bay Road and Purdy Avenue. The development site includes six vacant lots and two buildings to be demolished. The project has not yet started.


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