After Bahia Mar, Grassroots Petition Could Stop New Development in Fort Lauderdale

Rendering of the Bahia Mar towers.
Rendering of the Bahia Mar towers.
Courtesy of Cal Deal

When developers proposed plunking two 39-story condo towers on Fort Lauderdale Beach, residents fought back. They feared more traffic and congestion as well as losing a piece of the boat show, the tennis courts, and a parking lot. The outrage was ultimately enough to convince developers to withdraw their plans. It was a sweeping victory over the City and big developers. But residents realized the Bahia Mar proposal exposed bigger flaws in Fort Lauderdale’s laws. They wanted to make sure this nightmare didn't happen again.

Since March, residents have continued meeting and created two petitions that would prevent any proposals like the Bahia Mar from being considered: one that proposed only using the city's land for public purposes and another that stopped the construction of any buildings taller than 40 feet high east of Federal Highway for one year. The group of determined residents collected over 1,000 signatures by registered Fort Lauderdale voters. Earlier this week, the Supervisor of Elections confirmed them. According to a little-known loophole in the city's charter, city attorneys will now have 30 days to draft both ordinances, and commissioners will vote on it soon after. 

"We're really excited, and I can't ever remember hearing of a similar initiative," says Idlewyld resident and longtime activist Mary Fertig. "This was started by volunteers, no political consultants or political party, but by a group of people who lived in a community and organized to get some issues on the agenda for discussion."

According to the city charter, the group must give the city manager 60 days to put the proposed ordinance on the agenda. One person will present it to commissioners at a regular meeting. If the law is delayed or rejected, residents can demand a citywide vote. 

Fertig believes this is the first time this loophole has been used. When the Bahia Mar proposal was being considered, the concerned residents met weekly to plan ways to stop it. They circulated an online petition that garnered more than 1,200 signatures. Once they succeeded, they decided to keep meeting. If commissioners weren't going to enact laws to address problems, they would do it themselves. 

The first proposed ordinance states, "All public-owned lands owned by the City of Fort Lauderdale and located between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean shall be limited to public uses and public services provided for the general public." For example, the Bahia Mar proposal would have privatized a parking lot, tennis court, and 23-acre marina that hosted the annual boat show to make way for skyscrapers. This measure would prevent the city from leasing its land (like parking lots and marinas) for anything unavailable to all residents.

"We realized quickly that a lot of objections about the one project were issues that could apply to other projects," Fertig says. "We could persevere on one issue but not solve the underlying problem."

The second proposed ordinance calls for the city to impose a "building moratorium on new construction other than single family residential or buildings of a height of less than forty (40) feet tall, on land situated between Federal Highway and the Atlantic Ocean for a period of one year." This would keep projects like  Bahia Mar from being built. According to the petition, the one-year moratorium would buy the city time to "study and implement a comprehensive city-wide development plan that addresses residential densities, infrastructure upgrades and traffic." The idea is that the city should tackle congestion and traffic issues before expanding further.

"We know citizens are not happy with the traffic problem on the beach," Fertig says. "We're looking for plans that impact the whole city and trying to be proactive and address the issues that continue to get worse every year."

As Fort Lauderdale grows each year, Fertig believes traffic and congestion will only get worse. Right now, the group of volunteers that brought forward the ordinances is focusing on getting the proposed ordinances drafted and passed into law. But as the group keeps gaining momentum, they plan to grow into a group called Lauderdale Tomorrow. Its focus, Fertig says, is to bring grassroots change to the city. In the future, she expects more petitions and ordinances to tackle other issues. 

"Rather than working on one narrow issue, we want to [find ways to address] what we could do to improve the quality of life issue," she says. "The goal is to work to have a better Lauderdale tomorrow."

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