The Greening of Coral Gables: Creating a Sustainable City

Reducing our Carbon Footprint, Curtailing Traffic, Fighting Sea Level Rise, Banning Styrofoam and Plastic Bags, Going Electric with the City’s Car Fleet – it all Adds up to a City That is Exemplary in Preparing for the Eco-Compromised Future

By Doreen Hemlock

October 2018

Ask Matt Anderson what the city’s top priorities are for making Coral Gables more sustainable and eco-friendly, and he will say, well, it depends. 

“It’s hard to say because it’s everything, like being more water efficient and more fuel efficient,” says Anderson, who has been Coral Gables’ Senior Sustainability Analyst for the past three and a half years. “Sustainability is a broad umbrella and a lot of things can fall under it. One day it’s dealing with plastic bags and the next it’s coming up with mitigation efforts for sea level rise. The day after, it’s educating our kids in school [about the environment].” 

Matt Anderson, Coral Gables’ Senior Sustainability Analyst
Photo by Jonathan Dann

Ask Anderson what he’s proudest of, however, and there is no hesitation. “We are most proud of our electric vehicle fleet, the largest in Florida. The plastic bag legislation is also something we have great pride in, being the first in the state to implement a ban. And, we have very proactive staff and elected officials.” 

Among those is City Commissioner Vince Lago, now serving his second four-year term. Lago was an early proponent for the “greening” of Coral Gables, fighting for laws that banned Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, and that required new buildings of more than 20,000 square feet to earn a “green building” LEED certification. He also backed the creation of traffic reduction programs such as the city’s trolley and “freebee” micro buses, and has been a strong advocate of more green spaces and additional trees in public spaces. And all this while being a Republican. 

Coral Gables City Commissioner Vince Lago at his home with rooftop solar panel system

“Sometimes it’s not the most politically correct stand to take, but people need to be aware that by preserving the environment, you’re also ensuring that business can thrive in this community,” he says, noting that economic drivers like tourism, international investment and agriculture depend on clean air and water. “This is not about whether you’re an environmentalist, or whether you believe in global warming. This is about protecting what we hold so vital and so close to our heart, and that is South Florida’s environment.” 

Lago also practices what he preaches. He drives an electric car and has solar panels on his house. This personal commitment has led directly to some of his green initiatives: expanding the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program to let residents borrow money for energy improvements on their homes and to pay back those loans with their property taxes. He used PACE himself to finance the bulk of the $30,000 rooftop solar panel system on his home. By producing his own sun energy, he says, he’s slashed his monthly payments to Florida Power & Light from $200-plus to less than $10, and saved another $150 to $200 a month in gasoline bills thanks to his electric car. And those savings fit perfectly into the pro-business message of any Republican. 

“When you think about going green, not only are you helping the environment and helping the planet, but you’re also saving money,” he says. “So that’s the message that I try to send to people, that you can be a capitalist and, also, a conservationist.” Most recently, Lago backed a resolution that waives the fee for city permits to install rooftop solar, saving property owners $100 to $350 depending on the size of their solar panel projects. 

Lago is not the only political or private sector leader striving to make Coral Gables a leader in sustainability. Most, if not all, of the greening initiatives the city has advanced have come with unanimous support by its commissioners and its mayors. Among them has been Jim Cason, Coral Gables mayor for six years starting in 2011, who today spends much of his time working with coastal groups nationwide to push Washington, D.C. to adopt policies that mitigate sea level rise. 

When you think about going green, not only are you helping the environment and helping the planet, but you’re also saving money

City Commissioner Vince Lago

Cason had almost no idea about the threat of sea level rise when he moved to the city in 2009 after a career as a U.S. diplomat. But as Coral Gables mayor, the studious Republican got a quick education. He learned that one-fourth of the city’s prime real estate faces flooding as the atmosphere warms and glaciers melt. Now he champions the national Seawall Coalition, launched this May and comprised of more than a dozen municipal governments, as well as ports, military leaders and business groups – including, of course, the city of Coral Gables and the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. 

“There’s no reason whatsoever this should be a partisan issue,” says Cason, pointing to growing incidents of coastal flooding nationwide. “If you look at scientific predictions, there are projections for the sea to rise six feet by the end of the century.” 

Looking at a scary future: Jim Cason, former Coral Gables mayor (right) and Gables resident Greg Hamra (left) at a sea rise conference

Cason, Lago and other city leaders were also supporters of the most basic approach to being green: The so-called tree succession plan for maintaining the city’s vaunted canopy of tree-lined streets. Nothing says green like trees, from providing the heat relief of shade to absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. 

Not only has the city planted thousands of trees along streets and in public parks, it maintains a unique data base of all 38,175 public trees – their location, species and height. Try to cut one down without permission and you bring down the wrath of the city – along with fines. “From the city’s inception [the] vision was to have a community of tree-lined streets,” says Brook Dannemiller, the city’s public service director for tree maintenance. “That vision has not wavered.” 

On the private side, the city is also peopled with green volunteers. When it comes to sustainability it’s hard, for example, to miss Gables resident Greg Hamra. The self-described “climate solutionist” attends virtually every green event, serves on the Coral Gables sustainability advisory board, and works with many nonprofits. Hamra often speaks out on a core issue he finds overlooked: We’ve put too low a price on the carbon in fossil fuels, thereby promoting the use of oil, natural gas and coal, and not reflecting their real cost to the planet. 

“It’s not enough to change our light bulbs,” says Hamra. “We have to make the price of fossil fuels more honest.” Hamra volunteers with the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby, one of many groups worldwide that propose fees on carbon. On gasoline, his group’s plan would add roughly 15 cents per gallon, rising yearly. Those fees would be returned to households as “dividend” checks. 

“This is not just another solution in the toolbox. It’s a solution multiplier,” says Hamra of a steeper price on carbon. “If all the other solutions are ingredients in a pizza, this is the oven. You don’t get a decent pizza without the oven.” 

It’s not enough to change our light bulbs. We have to make the price of fossil fuels more honest…

Coral Gables resident Greg Hamra

While Coral Gables cannot change the policies of the federal government to regulate fossil fuel consumption, it can act locally – and intends to do so. Hamra’s sustainability advisory board is now considering new initiatives, including a program that would recognize and reward businesses that take “green” measures such as switching to energy-efficient lights, using low-flow fixtures, and cleaning with less toxic products. The city is also continuing work on a pioneering study of the legal implications of sea level rise.  

Yet hurdles abound, starting with a legal battle over the city’s ban on polystyrene and plastic bags. 


Coral Gables began full enforcement of its ban on single-use, carry-out plastic bag ban May 10, after giving local retailers a year to use up existing supplies and stock up on authorized bags. But some retailers are contesting the move in a much-watched case that could end up in Florida’s Supreme Court. 

The legal challenge has its roots in the city’s ban on polystyrene, usually called by brand name Styrofoam. Coral Gables banned restaurants and other retailers from handing out food containers made from the petroleum product in February 2016. But Tallahassee in March 2016 passed a law halting new Styrofoam bans, retroactive to Jan.1 that year. Coral Gables decided to move ahead with implementation of its ban anyway, arguing the state could not preempt its ordinance. 

The city claimed it had been singled out by the state, because it was the only municipality not allowed to keep its ban when the law was passed. It cited the Miami-Dade Home Rule Charter, which gives cities in the county special authority to create their own rules for governing. City Commissioner Lago, who had pushed for the ban, even asked fellow Republican and Florida Gov. Rick Scott to reconsider the state’s bill to halt bans, saying that local businesses understand “the important of being sustainable and protecting the environment.” 

That did not stop the Florida Retail Federation from suing to stop the city on behalf of its members – including Super Progreso, which owns a 7-Eleven convenience store in Coral Gables – in the summer of 2016. In their lawsuit, the retailers argued that Tallahassee had ultimate authority over packaging, including “auxiliary containers, wrappings and disposable plastic bags.” They cited a state statute requiring Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a study of all containers and requiring the legislature to make recommendations before cities could act on use of the containers. 

If you look at scientific predictions, there are projections for sea level to rise six feet by the end of the century…

Jim Cason, former Coral Gables mayor

But Judge Jorge E. Cueto of the 11th Judicial Circuit for Miami-Dade County sided with Coral Gables. In an opinion issued in February of 2017, Judge Cueto noted that though the legislature received the study in 2010 it never made recommendations, “leaving local governments … in a state of indefinite limbo” that required municipal action. 

Coral Gables not only enforced its Styrofoam ban, but seized on Cueto’s words to act on disposable plastic bags and ban them, too. No other Florida city had that specific language as legal grounds to act. The City Commission approved its plastic bag ban in May 2017, becoming the first city in Florida to do so. 

Opponents to the ban appealed Cueto’s ruling, however, and the case is now pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Depending on its ruling, the case could reach the state Supreme Court. Other Florida cities are watching the outcome to see if they will follow Coral Gables’ lead and ban plastic bags. 

“We feel very confident in our position, but we won’t know until the court rules,” says City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos. Should the Appeals Court reject the city’s arguments, “I’d have to take it to the City Commission for direction on whether to continue the fight,” says Ramos. 


Actions on sea level rise face challenges too, from costs to legal responsibilities. Cason’s administration commissioned a detailed report on the legal implications of sea level rise, looking at such issues as a city’s responsibility to provide services to residents of properties that repeatedly flood. Other cities in Florida and nationwide have requested copies of the report to study it. 

Cason recognizes that in the shortterm, Coral Gables will probably need to raise some bridges, because boats will not be able to cruise under existing ones as waters rise. It also will need to elevate some pumping stations and other critical infrastructure – projects that will cost millions of dollars. 

Fortunately, action may be precipitated by insurance companies and other financial players. Rating agencies are starting to give credit to cities for efforts on sea level rise when they grade their municipal bond issues. Plus, insurance companies are beginning to raise premiums on properties in areas likely to flood – unless they see local governments acting to mitigate rising seas. 

“Like cancer, people don’t want to think about sea level rise or talk about it,” says Cason. “But it’s a fact, and so much of our future is at stake. What are we going to do about it?”  

The answer to this question and all others that effect the city’s sustainability? The proverbial cliché to think globally, but act locally. 

While the city cannot reduce the level of carbon emissions from cars nationwide, for example, its trolley system has more than 1 million riders annually and has taken at least 750 cars off the street that would otherwise have parked downtown each day. While the city cannot eliminate the use of non-recyclable plastic nationwide, it can set the example that it is possible to ban their use as a municipality and still thrive in a retail environment. 

“We take a lot of pride in being sustainable and we take a lot of pride in just not being wasteful,” says Lago. “We take a lot of pride in not only saying that we’re green, but in being as green as possible.” 

“When we talk about our electric fleet, it’s a small amount [relative to the world],” says sustainability advisor Anderson. “But if we can be an example for other communities and start a chain reaction – that it makes not just environmental but economic sense to be more efficient – then we want to position ourselves to become the lead. We are a small city, but if we are the most water and power efficient we can be, it can have a big impact in our community. We have been able to position ourselves to begin the process, and to help others get there.” 

The City’s Sustainability Plan


Cut energy use by 20 percent by 2025. How? Switch to more efficient LED lighting for streets and city garages, use more efficient air conditioning in city buildings, install solar panels on select buildings. 

Cut fuel use by 20 percent by 2025. How? Buy more electric vehicles, add bike lanes, create more pedestrian-friendly areas. 

Cut water use by 20 percent by 2025. How? Upgrade city irrigation, install low-flush and low-flow fixtures. 

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2025. How? Use less fuel, use less energy, maintain a thick carbon- eating tree canopy. 

Divert solid waste from landfills by 75 percent by 2020. How? Expand recycling, organize hazardous waste collection. 

Reduce the impact of sea-level rise. How? Raise bridges and pumping stations in vulnerable areas, protect and expand mangroves. 

Coral Gables developed the draft with Jacksonville engineering consulting firm RS&H, which has worked on similar sustainability plans for Sunrise, Hallandale Beach and other South Florida cities. 

Keeping it green: Coral Gables tree czar Brooke Dannemiller

The City Commission has yet to approve the final version. But city departments, working with Senior Sustainability Analyst Matt Anderson, have already started work on 24 projects to boost sustainability. For instance, some public works buildings have switched from fluorescent to more efficient LED lights that use less electricity and last longer. Initial studies show savings from those 24 projects over the first 10 years topping $2 million. 

The Rising Tide


Visit bayside Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables during king tides, and you’ll find the parking lot flooded. It’s an unmistakable sign of sea level rise and the vulnerability of Coral Gables, which sits on more than 40 miles of waterfront property, both on natural and man-made shores. The result could mean a loss of one-quarter of all property taxes, ruining city finances. 

Coral Gables ex-mayor Jim Cason early on recognized the need for urgent action, including elevating bridges and pumps for wastewater. “It’s prudent to begin preparing for what we see already happening,” says Cason, who also knows that the costs are too great for cities to shoulder alone. 

Matheson Hammock Park

Fortunately, Miami-Dade County has also recognized the threat to Matheson, issuing a report earlier this year that showed it would cost $55 million over the next 20 years to keep the park above water, including the installation of boardwalks, floating docks, and raising the level of parking lots. Its proposed 2019 budget sets aside $4.3 million to heighten the most deteriorated of the park’s seawalls – enough to contain an additional two feet of water at high tide. 

Turning to the Sun


Coral Gables is proposing a new way to keep the power flowing at its emergency operations center during hurricanes: Solar panels to make electricity during the day and batteries to store it for later use. 

The proposal for solar microgrids earned Coral Gables a spot this spring among 35 finalists in the U.S. Mayors Challenge to find innovative solutions to urban woes. More than 320 cities offered ideas for the challenge, organized by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s nonprofit Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

As a finalist, Coral Gables is receiving up to $100,000 to develop a proto-type and submit plans for the next round of competition. This month, one city will be selected for a $5 million top prize and four others for $1 million each to create models for other cities to follow. To design the prototype, the city is working with University of Miami Associate Professor Nurcin Celik, who runs the simulation and optimization research lab at UM’s College of Engineering. 

University of Miami Associate Professor Nurcin Celik

“We want to see how microgrids can manage on their own in ‘island mode,’ not just how they operate while hooked up to the main grid,” she says. “Disasters happen, but the goal is that once they do happen, we should be able to take action immediately.” 

The Plastic Bag Ban


The city’s ordinance, in effect since May, prohibits stores and restaurants from providing customers single-use, carry-out plastic bags. It applies to all retailers in Coral Gables, including supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, shops, service stations, restaurants and other outlets where customers can buy merchandise. 

Exempted from the ban are: produce bags that protect food or merchandise from being damaged or contaminated by other items when placed together in a reusable or recyclable bag; bags that hold prescription medicines dispensed from a pharmacy or veterinary office; bags designed to be placed over articles of clothing on a hanger; door hanger bags; newspaper bags; garbage bags; pet waste bags; yard waste bags; bags a customer previously owned. 

Violators face fines that start at $50 and escalate to $500. For more information, check bags. 

Building to “Green” Standards


Jesse Rittenhouse helps clients develop buildings that are healthy for occupants and operate more efficiently in Coral Gables. The city has some of the strictest standards in Florida, requiring all new private buildings over 20,000 square feet – and all new public ones – to be certified under the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council’s program known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED. 

Rittenhouse, of sustainability consultants The Spinnaker Group in Weston, is currently helping plan the Merrick Park Hotel at 4241 Aurora Street. He’s focusing on everything from the materials used and health conditions for workers during construction, to how much electricity and water will be consumed by tenants. 

Among specific suggestions: Use concrete made with recycled content, plus carpets and paints without toxic chemicals. Buy locally-made goods when possible to cut down on emissions from long-distance transport. And make sure that construction workers are not exposed to paint fumes or ground stone. 

“Green buildings provide a huge return on investment,” says Rittenhouse. “At the end of the day, you’re focusing on the health of people who work and live in the buildings, and health is expensive. In green buildings, we see lower turnover, high retention rates and fewer sick days.” 

Jesse Rittenhouse of The Spinnaker Group

In Coral Gables, major building projects pay three percent of their construction cost as a “Green Building Bond” and then have two years after project completion to obtain required “green” certification. If the project fails certification, the bond money is forfeited. 

It’s Official: Gables Goes Electric


Matt Anderson likes to drive to city meetings without using gasoline. He hops into one of the city’s electric vehicles, which runs on batteries. The electric cars save the city money on fuel and have none of the emissions of gasoline-powered cars. 

Coral Gables now has 35 electric vehicles for administrative purposes, like driving to meetings. “We have the largest electric vehicle fleet of any city in the state,” says Anderson, the city’s senior sustainability analyst. 

So far, Coral Gables has purchased only Nissan Leafs. Each cost about $32,000, but by leasing first, the city brought the price down to $18,000. Nissan also has donated two charging stations to the city, which can power up a battery to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes. The city now has nine charging stations in parking garages, all available for free public use. 

This year, Coral Gables aims to buy eight extended-range Chevrolet Volts, and by 2022, the city plans to boost its EV tally to 78, or roughly 60 percent of its administrative fleet. By then, it plans to double the number of charging stations in the city, says Anderson.