Road Worriers

Joseph Levy says his business needs more cars, not trees
Joshua Prezant

In a smoke-filled back dining room in Grady's restaurant in Plantation, Emery "Fuzzy" Fazzini hunkers over a cheese-slathered, Mexican-style dish and plots his next move. A burly, gray-haired man who looks like a less-cuddly version of Burl Ives, Fazzini says his used-car dealership on State Road 7 in Plantation is under siege -- by the city itself. Plantation cops have paid him several recent visits, telling him he has to clean up, add landscaping, and install a fire sprinkler system. He estimates upgrades would cost him some $25,000, but he says he won't pay it.

Instead he'll fight. And he's not alone. All 19 of the small, independent used-car dealers on State Road 7 between Davie and Sunrise boulevards feel persecuted by the city right now. Dick Murphy, who owns or leases three of the dealerships, invited Fazzini to the lunch along with a few of their colleagues to plan a counteroffensive. Fazzini is the undisputed granddaddy of all used-car dealers along that stretch of road, having been a fixture there since he returned from battle in World War II.

This is his new war, one that's been brewing for some time. Business owners on the road have been complaining for more than a decade about paying extra taxes with no benefit, the city's refusal to accept grant money to revitalize the area, and general governmental neglect. Now the city is trying to force them to make major renovations, while at the same time planning for an almost dealership-free State Road 7 within five years.

Fazzini hasn't complained too much until now. He's a long-time friend of former Plantation mayor Frank Veltri. Under Veltri's nearly 25-year reign, Fazzini's business ran smoothly. But it's been a bumpy ride for him under Mayor Rae Carole Armstrong, who took office in 1998.

"We've got to be political," Fazzini tells Murphy. "I had pull with Veltri, and Veltri didn't enforce the codes. Veltri was clean, though, don't get me wrong. He wouldn't take a bribe or a favor, and believe me, I found that out early on," he adds. "But Veltri ain't there anymore, and if you don't think this new mayor is tough, you better watch out. She's tougher than Veltri, and I have no clout with her. She always does it by the book.

"But it ain't her I'm worried about. There's only one guy who's behind this whole thing, and his name is Lee Hillier."

"Is Hillier a lawyer?" Murphy asks, sipping a bottle of Budweiser as a Vantage 100 smolders in his other hand.

"No, he's a councilman, and he hates everybody," says Fazzini. "He's the guy who started this whole mess, and if we can take him out of office and then get the council on our side... well, boys, then we can get it done. But it's going to take money, and I mean a lot of it. We got to pick one of these candidates running against him."

"That's not the way to do it," Murphy demurs. "To hell with politics. We get lawyers, and we fight it that way."

The two men are unable to agree on a strategy, but they do settle on a short-term tactic: They will refuse to make any of the improvements being forced upon them by the city.

The city wants Murphy to install firewalls in his businesses and add landscaping. "Let them try to find me," taunts the landlord of Gold Key Motors and Best Bid Auto Auction, who also owns and runs City Auto Repo and a medical center on State Road 7. "I won't sign a damn thing."

Open defiance might work for a month or two, but their long-term survival will hinge on either a change in the political wind or the skills of a hard-nosed land-use attorney. According to documents published last year by the Community Redevelopment Agency now overseeing the district, the city plans to replace all of the small used-car lots with professional and commercial spaces. Only the larger dealerships on the northwest side of the road, such as Plantation Ford, will survive.

The city also has designated the district as a blighted area, using Fazzini's business, where cars often overflow onto sidewalks and rights of way, as a good example of bad business. And in 1998 the city unanimously passed a new ordinance adding regulations to the businesses in an overt attempt to phase out the worst of them by the year 2003.

Hillier, who has indeed been the leading critic of the dealerships, says he isn't surprised Fazzini wants him out of office. He notes that his constituents have been complaining about the dealerships for years, and the councilman refuses to apologize for the fact that the city is finally enforcing its codes.  

"I am quite prepared for a war with these businesses," Hillier declares. "We knew this was coming. These are the laws, and we've had plans to force compliance with codes by these businesses for years. Now we're finally implementing the plans. I have more sympathy for the residents than the car dealers. Fuzzy is the poster boy for slum and blight, so who is he to point fingers?"

But the city's strong mayor has truly been the driving force behind the new get-tough code-enforcement practices. Armstrong says she sympathizes with the businesses but stresses that they don't fit in with the city's long-range plans. She says she wants to work with the landlords to help them clean up their lots and bring up their property values -- thus allowing them to make a profit when the city or developers buy the land.

"They were never supposed to be there," she says of the dealerships. "The properties are too small for car lots. They are going to have to spend some money they don't want to spend, but I'm trying to find solutions that will benefit all parties."

It's no secret that used-car dealerships -- with their noise, often unsightly automobiles, and pollution -- are generally considered undesirable in any neighborhood. But the dealers don't see it that way. "Where are they going to buy used cars then?" asks Joseph Levy, an Israeli immigrant who runs Best Bid Auto Auction. "When I came here 16 years ago, I thought America was the freest country in the world, but we're just puppets in this country. All the time, they come chopping our balls. They want us to put in two or three [landscaped] islands and plants so it will be pretty, but I need cars up there, not trees."

The current conflict could be the decisive battle in an ongoing series of skirmishes. The first concerted attempt to revitalize the area came in 1987, when Plantation, operating under the state's Safe Neighborhood Act, created the Gateway 7 Development District and implemented an extra property tax on the businesses along the corridor. The tax, which cost landowners an additional $200 per year for every $100,000 in assessed property value, has gone into a special fund to be used for improvements like new streetlights, signs, and landscaping. The state was supposed to supply matching funds to the district.

The tax has so far generated some $2 million in revenue for the city, thanks to reluctant contributors like Art Rosen, who owns a small realty company. But when Rosen recently learned that the Safe Neighborhood Act hasn't been funded by the state since 1990, when Gov. Bob Martinez vetoed the funding, the landlord was furious; the lack of state money hasn't stopped the city from collecting the tax for the past decade. Rosen says he and several others are considering legal action to try to get their money back. Currently, roughly $1 million is sitting in the fund, while the other $1 million collected over the years went to improvements -- primarily on the west side of State Road 7.

"We haven't seen anything come from that tax, not a thing," gripes Rosen, whose business, like those of Fazzini and Murphy, is located on the east side of the road.

Further outraging some business owners is the fact that the city, during the past 25 years, has turned up its nose at more than $10 million in federal grant money that could have gone toward improving their neighborhood. Rather than take $500,000 annually in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, the city, under Veltri's command, chose to allocate the money to the county. Veltri refused to comment for this article but wrote in resolutions during the 1990s that the city wanted "flexibility" when it came to spending money.

Last year Armstrong asked for and received the $500,000 in CDBG money, and it is slated to be spent on State Road 7. "Maybe Mayor Veltri thought there were strings attached, but I don't see any strings," she says. Those funds, plus a just-completed $25 million widening of the road by the state Department of Transportation and the recent creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency seem finally to have the district on an upward trend after a decade of declining (or at best stagnant) property values. Armstrong says she hopes the area will achieve an "upscale aesthetic" -- not a description that comes to mind when passing by, say, Fuzzy's Tire Center.

Fazzini knows this and thus isn't feeling too optimistic right now. He considers making improvements to his building akin to performing plastic surgery on a dying patient. He adds that he has found a potential political ally -- with a familiar name -- to help keep the code enforcers at bay. The former mayor's daughter, Diane Veltri Bendekovic, is opposing Hillier in the March 13 city council general election; Fazzini says he's considering throwing support -- and campaign dollars -- her way. "The problem is we don't have much time," he grumbles.  

In the meantime he'll continue his delaying action. "I already told them there was no way I was going to put in the sprinklers," Fazzini states. "So now the ball is back in their court."

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