Unpermitted work delays Palm and Hibiscus road work


Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Unpermitted work delays Palm and Hibiscus road work:

County says it's waiting for complete drawings to issue permits and clear violation

Another City of Miami Beach stormwater project – this time on Palm and Hibiscus Islands – lacks the appropriate permits, according to the County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). To get the permits, the City needs to submit engineer certified drawings for the project. But not all conditions with private property harmonization have been determined so there are no complete drawings and the work remains on hold leaving residents frustrated. Members of the Commission’s Sustainability and Resiliency Committee brought all parties to the table to try to find a solution. 
Lee Hefty, Director of DERM, told the Commissioners 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.”
This is the second unpermitted stormwater project within Miami Beach. The City is still dealing with the fallout from a seawall along Indian Creek that 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.

Pierre De Agostini spoke for the Palm and Hibiscus Neighborhood Association about what he called a “deadlock that has been going on for a few weeks or a few months” between the City’s Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) Division and DERM. He noted the complexity of the work still needed to harmonize the driveways of more than 100 homes with the elevated roadway but asked Committee members to find a way to expedite the work. 
“I urge you to get it moving because it’s getting to be a painful experience,” De Agostini said. “I don’t think it’s the experience that we want the City of Miami Beach to project. Those islands should be a shining example of what leadership in a city like Miami Beach which is threatened by rising water can do.”
Hefty told Commissioners, “We’ve been working with the City for about the last year trying to get details on how they want that drainage system to look so we can review and issue that permit.” He said he understands residents are “frustrated that their road, their neighborhood, is torn up. They’re looking for some resolutions” but he said the County has been waiting on detailed drawings with the proper engineering certifications.
“The City has jumped ahead in the process of trying to address sustainability and resilience and that’s laudable,” he said. “Moving ahead and building a roadway project that is going to be more protective and resilient in the future is a good thing. I think, perhaps, what should have happened in better detail before they embarked on that roadway project was a decision on how they would deal with the harmonization slopes because to have to go back later after you’ve already built up a road and deal one by one with property owners on how you’re going to deal with harmonization on this property, on that property, on that property, it’s really not very good for the citizens and… you’re perhaps going to end up with a hodge podge.”
“So my recommendation was for future projects, make sure you look at the entire design including harmonization into adjoining properties so that you don’t end up having to come back and rethink something that you didn’t adequately design the first time around,” Hefty said.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re waiting for the City to give us details on what they would like permitted and, quite frankly, we’re expecting that sooner rather than later because, at this point, we have an open violation," Hefy said. "We want the City to come into compliance. The work is done without a permit and we need that work to be done under a permit, so we’re expecting the City to submit the details so that we can review and issue a permit for it.”
County Commissioner Eileen Higgins said she has reviewed the Palm and Hibiscus and Indian Creek projects with Hefty. “In both cases we’re dealing with the City of Miami Beach not getting proper permits and starting construction and, at the end of the day, we end up penalizing our residents when we don’t follow the process.” 
“We can complain and we can complain and I complain directly to Lee all the time and I think DERM is a little slow sometimes and I wish permitting got faster and was faster,” Higgins said, “but it’s better to be slow at the beginning rather than leaving unfinished construction, in the case of Palm and Hibiscus probably for maybe an extra nine months, and in the case of Indian Creek, who the heck knows, several years to tear something down and fix.”
“So, not to admonish the City of Miami Beach, but get your permits first,” Higgins said.  “In talking with Lee it seems there is actually still some engineering that needs to be done on these things to get the plans up to date.”
Commissioner John Alemán agreed the “project was launched without these individual home connections” and noted Commission action mid-project to allow residents citywide to tie-in to the public system to drain water from areas below road crown elevation when roads are raised to mitigate flooding from sea level rise. She asked if the City was clear on what DERM needed or if there was some kind of a stalemate that needed to be dealt with.
“Honestly, the City hasn’t told us what drains you want to keep and what drains you want to get rid of,” Hefty said. Noting incomplete and inaccurate drawings, he added, “We’re asking some fundamental questions.”
Committee Chair, Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “We are in a stalemate. That’s where we are. We’ve been in a stalemate and we need to get out of stalemate.”
Carpenter said his team has been “working collaboratively for the past six months or so” with DERM “to try to make a very difficult situation a little bit better if not a lot better.” He showed before and after slides of flooding (above) of the road project to “level set what we were dealing with in the past and why the City moved as quickly as it did to try and find solutions to a relatively difficult problem.”
He said the City did get permits “for the entire collection system on both islands. Those collection systems have since been installed which is part of why you see the difference in the pictures.”  
On Hibiscus, he said the City was resubmitting as-built drawings for three additional drains that were installed within the right of way and two that were not installed as planned. There are only about 18 homes on Hibiscus where harmonization with the roadway is needed.
“Palm Island is certainly much more challenging” because there are approximately 90 homes that require harmonization.  In those areas, Carpenter said “We installed a number of temporary construction drains… we realized that raising the roads up could potentially put these properties in a little bit of a different situation during construction activity.” 
In fact, nearly 88 temporary construction drains that will “ultimately either get converted to a private property drain or, if we can’t resolve the harmonization issue with the private property owner, then we would permit those as a permanent drainage structure.”
In the meantime, the City needs to come up with 108 individual harmonization scenarios and drainage calculations and that requires agreements with all the property owners.
Commissioner Joy Malakoff asked what can be done in the beginning of future projects to avoid the same situation.  “I mean I think it was a little backwards” on Palm and Hibiscus, she said.
“And I promise you, we’ve learned that lesson,” Carpenter replied. “For projects like West Avenue, we’re having individual one on one meetings with the properties now so that we can design that harmonization and that gets incorporated with the initial permit set that goes in rather than an after-the-fact [permit application].”
Carpenter said the City is trying to finalize the harmonization agreements on Palm and Hibiscus which he said is the preferred route but the City has to design its system so it can work without agreements in cases where they can’t be reached. “That’s the limbo that we’re in right now.”
He said 69 agreements have been reached so far.  “We don’t want to sod it and walk away from it because we think there’s a better solution. And we want to continue to work with the neighbors to reach that better solution,” he said.
Alemán told Hefty that Miami Beach “can’t afford to wait” on its resiliency projects. “So we appreciate your patience when we stumble, if we don’t do everything exactly perfectly. Clearly none of us, whether it’s on the Commission side or the Administration side think it’s okay to do work without permits. None of us think that’s okay and we know we’ve made that mistake in the past and we’re doing everything we can to not make that mistake anymore. This situation is really tough for the reasons that I said. We had a major, major, major design change right in the middle and we just really need, really need to work together. We really cannot have a stalemate of any kind because people live there, you know.”
“This whole program is vital to the future of our city,” she continued. “If we don’t continue this work, we won’t have a city. And we are a major economic engine, not just for the County but for the entire state so it’s imperative that we get back up off the floor and get going again.”
Alemán asked Carpenter how Commissioners could help him.
“At this point, we’ve got to stay the course,” he replied. “I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve just got to get a little bit of patience and stay the course.”
Samuelian said he wanted “to get some tangible actions. I’m concerned. I’m concerned by what I’m hearing and I don’t like the course we’re on. I think that we need to do better.”
“I’d like to hear a little more clarity on the next steps because I think we’re hearing specific requirements and I just want to know where we’re going to go to meet the engineering requirements. Be clear about what the drains are going to be,” Samuelian said. “If there’s a time to sort of reset and say ‘We could use a little more help to jumpstart this,’ now would be that time because right now we’re leaving our residents in a lurch and I’m just not comfortable with where we’re at.”
Carpenter said his team would “get the ball rolling as fast as we can understanding that we don’t want to cut any corners on the solutions.”
Alemán expressed concern that there could be residents who may not cooperate and create “unproductive delays.”
“I think in order to move forward,” De Agostini said, “you have to have the homeowners feel confident that the solution offered is the adequate solution. And put yourself in the shoe of the homeowners who are not engineers, who don’t have an engineer background… You show a beautiful picture of the road which is very dry but each time that road is very dry, the property has basically retained the waters much more than they used to… So I think If you want to move forward there has to be a building of the credibility of the City to the homeowners so that homeowners feel secure that whatever solution is offered to them is going to work.”
Changing proposed locations of drains from the right of way to private properties has raised concerns, he said. “None of the homeowners are holding it just for the sake of holding. They all want to get it past that stage. They really do. But I think the question is the credibility…” Homeowners are asking if they need to hire their own engineering firms to understand the City’s plans, De Agostini said. “I think that’s where the City needs to be focused. They need to focus on the scientific approach, why this is going to work for each property.” 
Samuelian said, “I, for one, would be open to any request from the Administration to break the stalemate and jumpstart where we’re at because, right now, this is a quagmire.” He asked Carpenter to come back to the full Commission this week with thoughts on how to move forward. “We need an action plan, what needs to happen so that we can get this thing going because right now I don’t think we’re there but we obviously want to work together.”
Carpenter said DERM has been helpful, providing quick turnaround times. “We’re working through this process. It’s a little bit of a slog but we’re working through the process.”
Hefty said, “You have our commitment at the County… We’re happy to work with the City on solutions. We’re happy to meet with the City at any time. From our perspective, we are not at a stalemate. We just simply need the City to complete the details on the plans on what they want permitted and submit it to us so we can process it.”
“It sounds like what you heard today is they’re still working through the details on how to design the project property by property,” Hefty said. “And my recommendation would be, again, in the future don’t start the project until you have those details worked out so you don’t end up with a situation like that where the finish of the project is held up because you’re waiting to get modifications [to] the permit.”
“It is true that as a society we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to deal with climate change and sea level rise and we want the City to succeed because we’d like the lessons that you learn here to be propagated throughout the rest of the County,” Hefty added.  

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