Palm, Hibiscus, Indian Creek Projects Referred to Inspector General for review

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Palm, Hibiscus, Indian Creek Projects Referred to Inspector General for review:

Concerns raised over unpermitted, unfinished work

After learning that another Miami Beach stormwater project lacks proper permits, two City Commissioners want the new Inspector General to review the processes that allowed that to happen. The latest permit issue came to light when the Commission’s Sustainability and Resiliency Committee sought answers for the delays with stormwater infrastructure and road work on Palm and Hibiscus Islands. They were surprised to learn that the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) stopped the project after the City failed to get permission for additional drains that it installed outside of the original permit for the project.

Committee Chair Mark Samuelian brought the issue to the entire Commission at its final meeting in October. “The situation I would describe as pretty urgent. Our project is frozen” in an unfinished state, Samuelian said. “In my two years on the dais, this is probably one of the most concerning situations I’ve become aware of.”
“Like we had in Indian Creek, we now have unpermitted work and we are in violation,” he added. “This action needs to stop. Our project was stopped by DERM on July 9 and our residents are now suffering.” 
Lee Hefty, Director of DERM, told the Commissioners at the Committee meeting that “all drainage systems that discharge to surface waters need a permit from the County,” but on Palm and Hibiscus, “on the order of 1-200 drains got installed on properties along the roadway without DERM review and approval.”
In the case of the Indian Creek project, a seawall was built in the wrong place and without permits. Nearly two years later, the project remains in limbo as the City waits for approval for its plans to remove and relocate three noncompliant portions of the seawall. The City’s Engineer lost his job as a result.
Before the full Commission, Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter said, “The most concerning of all of the items is the characterization of the permit discussion. The fact of the matter is that we started construction in July 2016 on the stormwater system in Palm and Hibiscus. We had a full permit from DERM in May of 2016 before we ever broke ground on the stormwater system. That stormwater system has gone through an evolution during the project” but he objected to comparing it to Indian Creek “where we bypassed a federal permitting process as opposed to this particular instance where we should have gone through a permit modification process.” 
“Very seldom does anybody install a stormwater project that is exactly the same as what was designed and permitted originally,” he added.
At issue are 17 drains in the right of way that drain into different catch basins than originally permitted and 88 temporary drains to prevent flooding issues during construction. Because those drains were temporary, a member of the contractor’s team said they did not seek a permit modification. The City is now working with the County on including all of the drains in permit drawings and expects to have engineering plans completed by Thanksgiving.
Also needing DERM approval are harmonization plans for the permanent drains which allow water from private properties to drain into the City’s stormwater system. A decision by the City Commission to allow drainage from private properties where the first floor elevation is rendered lower than the crown elevation of roads that are raised to mitigate flooding from sea level rise came midway through the project and was what Carpenter was referring to when he described the "evolution" of the project that resulted in the changes. The City has reached an agreement with 69 out of 98 property owners. Carpenter said the City will meet with the remaining owners by the first week in December to discuss the plans further with them. 
Mayor Dan Gelber said he intends to call for a resiliency workshop that will include a discussion on all of the current projects once the new Commission is seated. In the meantime, he acknowledged that “Palm and Hibiscus has been a bit of nightmare. Obviously, it’s gone on too long and had all these issues and the residents… have rightfully been very, very frustrated.”
Gelber said, “While we want to get it done, we want to get it done right… I don’t want us to not do these important resiliency projects because, frankly, as we went through the last couple of months with King Tides, one thing I did notice is in areas where we’ve done our work, generally there’s not the flooding there has been or certainly not even close and the areas where there is flooding, we haven’t done anything yet. So, obviously, we have to do things and I think it’s important the marketplace understands we’re serious about it but it is most important that we do it right.”
Gelber said he would be meeting with Hefty to further discuss the issue. “There’s a lot of movement on this,” he told Palm and Hibiscus residents in attendance. “It’s been a little nightmarish, I know. We’re trying to get this thing home.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora expressed frustration over the incomplete work, increased costs and lack of permits. “Both this project and Indian Creek have been really troubling and upsetting to me because they’ve both been situations where we hear there weren’t proper permits pulled that needed to be pulled. We’ve modified and amended these projects to tens of millions of dollars over the past two years giving both of these projects more and more money to try to appease the resident complaints but yet the work doesn’t really get done.”
“We’re not seeing the changes so I feel as frustrated as you feel being here,” he told residents, “because we keep asking why this is happening and why this is going on and we’re not getting answers up here either.”
He then referred the item to the new Inspector General whose mission is to increase efficiency in government processes and detect waste, fraud, or abuse “to look into the Palm and Hibiscus projects and the Indian Creek project to find out what went wrong with permitting, why we’ve budgeted so much money and it’s gone over budget, why these projects aren’t working correctly, why the residents are waiting years and years and years with no result.”

Samuelian agreed. “When we brought in the Inspector General, it was to address waste and inefficiency. I think this is a classic example.”
He said he would continue to keep the item on the Commission agenda for discussion for the time being. “We need to act with urgency. We need to get this darned thing done.”
Since the Commission meeting, a City spokeswoman confirmed Gelber met with Hefty "to discuss the City’s resiliency projects” and that the dialogue will continue.

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