Lee Bacall noses his sleek two-seater Jag off Riverland Road in Fort Lauderdale. “The word ‘serene’ seems to bubble up from the ground,” the 71-year-old says with a conspiratorial nod, as if you’ll soon see what he means.
He follows a ribbon of concrete, wide enough only for one car, that’s choked overhead by towering palms and vines. The area feels so remote that it could be a driveway or a city service road. But then you begin to spot them like animals hiding in the jungle: houses screened by the vegetation. They are 1940s Spanish-influenced villas, flat-topped 1950s bungalows, and building-block modernist jobs that would fit in the Hollywood Hills — a whole helter-skelter residential ’hood hidden in the quiet streets veining out from Riverland.
“Every house is very unique,” says Bacall, who’s lived here since 1992. “It has a very old-school Florida vibe.”
But a new development in the neighborhood is threatening to kill the vibe, according to Bacall and his neighbors. Soon to go before the Fort Lauderdale City Commission: a proposal by the country’s largest builders to put 14 homes on a 5.19-acre parcel of nearby land. The neighbors are mounting a resistance, and not just because they worry about their own turf. The project exposes a loophole in Fort Lauderdale’s planning code that could portend bad news for many of the city’s neighborhoods now that the regional real estate market is revving its engine again.
Riverland folks are quick to call the area Fort Lauderdale’s answer to Miami’s Coconut Grove — leafy and quiet yet not far from the city. But the Broward version, near the traffic bustle of Davie Boulevard west of I-95, has a backwoods isolation that is more like the residential houses off Krome Avenue in the Everglades. Many of the houses not only sit behind natural walls of foliage but along canals that branch off the South Fork of the New River. Often manatees can be found bobbing in the slim fingers of water right out someone’s back door.
For years, that isolation was not just a feel but a legal reality. The area wasn’t incorporated into Fort Lauderdale until 2002. Under the language of the resolution cementing the incorporation, the City Commission flagged its “intent to preserve the existing character, integrity, and unique lifestyle of the area.”
But that’s a promise the city is going back on, according to residents.
In March, Riverland Road residents learned that home construction giant D.R. Horton plans to build 14 houses on a now-wooded lot on Riverland. The average lot size in the new development would be 11,278 square feet. In contrast, the neighboring lots average 39,130 square feet. The sudden injection of such density into the neighborhood could have serious aftereffects, residents claim.
“We don’t want to stop development,” says Jeremy Chancey, president of the newly formed Riverland Preservation Society. “We just want good development.”
Unfortunately, due to the way the city code is written, good or bad development isn’t easy to determine. Under the current code, a developer proposing such a project doesn’t have to submit a site plan — or a general overview of the whole proposed development — to the city. Instead, the developer can get plat approval, which is done parcel by parcel. A site plan, which would be required in a city like Miami, would force the developer to submit studies tracking the possible impact the proposed development would have on the nearby water table, tree life, and traffic.
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But by snaking through Fort Lauderdale’s loophole, D.R. Horton doesn’t have to submit any such impact studies. If approved, it can just build.
“Then that character is gone forever,” Chancey said last week at a meeting of the neighborhood’s preservation society.
This summer, the planning commission reviewed the idea and voted 4-4 on the project. The City Commission will take up the matter in September. The legislative body can still green-light the development. In the meantime, Bacall, Chancey, and other residents are gathering online support through a change.org petition to save the neighborhood.
An attorney representing the developer did not return an email seeking request for comment.