Time to Expand?

The Effort to Expand Coral Gables Through Annexing Two “Pockets” is Moving Forward. It Will Soon be up to the Residents Inside These Areas to Decide if They Want to Join the City Beautiful

By Mike Clary // Photography by Jon Braeley

April 2019

As a 40-year resident of High Pines, a leafy enclave in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, Diane Beverley treasures the ambiance and the people of her neighborhood. “We love our little community,” says Beverley, a retired preschool teacher who has no intention of moving.

Yet Beverley may soon find herself living in Coral Gables, thanks to a push to annex her High Pines/Ponce-Davis neighborhood in the southwest flank of the City Beautiful, along with another area to the northeast called Little Gables.

If you look at a map of Coral Gables, the long, salamander shape of the city
has two chunks cut out of it, like pieces missing from a quilt. Both are part of Miami-Dade County. The High Pines square is bounded by Sunset on the north and Kendall Drive on the south, and runs from 57th Avenue on the west to the tip of Old Cutler on the east. The smaller Little Gables square is bound by SW 8th Street on the north, Salzedo on the east, Mendoza on the south and Cortez on the west.

Residents of the two areas could cast up or down votes on annexation later this year, pending approval for the vote by the county commission. Coral Gables officials have already told residents they’re welcome to join the city. “The number one benefit is emergency services,” said Karen Shane, longtime president of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association. “Property values would go up. We’d be held to a high standard on upkeep, we’d have better drainage, traffic calming, more waste pick-up. It would be smaller government close to home.” As for the upcoming vote, “I am absolutely hopeful. I think we’re on track for it to happen,” Shane says.

Karen Shane, president of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association

For Coral Gables, annexing the two areas would add 1.37 square miles of territory and more than 6,000 residents, while generating a boost in annual tax revenues that would easily pay for the required municipal services, proponents contend. Surveys indicate that a majority of residents of the two areas favor joining the City Beautiful.

Yet there are dissenters, including Beverley. “I don’t want extra taxes, I don’t want street lights and sidewalks, and I don’t want them to tell me what color I can paint my house,” she says, referring to the Gables’ famously rigorous zoning codes. “I don’t see a reason for us to join them.”

I am absolutely hopeful. I think we’re on track for it to happen…

Karen Shane

In Little Gables, 19-year resident Gladys Saenz opposes annexation, fearing a hike in property taxes and fees. “Annexation is not affordable for most of us,” she says.

But the annexation train is rolling. Last year Gables commissioners voted in favor of taking in both neighborhoods; if county commissioners agree to annexation (on their docket for this spring) residents of the two areas will vote in a referendum.

“There have been a lot of false starts since 1995,” says High Pines activist Keith Donner, who favors annexation. “But I think this time it will pass…The county is so big, and there are so many of us in unincorporated areas, that there are rounds and rounds of meetings and nothing gets done. What we’re looking for [with Coral Gables] is responsive government.”

Benefits Both Ways

While annexation of the two areas is not linked, the proceedings are moving along on parallel tracks. Commissioner Vince Lago says he expects the process to be final this year.

“It is a good opportunity financially, and more importantly, it is an opportunity to improve public safety and services,” Lago says. “Right now, Little Gables is underserved with regard to police. And High Pines would receive the exceptional police, fire and garbage services the city provides. There would be a slight cost for residents, but no price can be placed on increased public safety and quality of life.”

Police Chief Ed Hudak believes annexation will reduce the city’s borders and make it easier to monitor them with its “geo-fence” system of cameras that track license plates as vehicles enter and leave Coral Gables. “My position as police chief is that if we square off the city, it’s much easier to patrol one border than three borders [for each pocket],” Hudak says. Currently, Miami-Dade police have to cut across Coral Gables to reach Little Gables. By mutual agreement, Coral Gables police will respond in cases of emergency.

“Right now, if the county cars are a distance away, they will call on us,” says Hudak. “But this happens only two or three times a month in Little Gables and maybe once a month in High Pines. If High Pines/Ponce-Davis and Little Gables do join the city, “we’re obviously going to have to increase the size of the [police] department,” says Hudak. “But there will be no impact to services in the rest of the city.”

High Pines/Ponce-Davis and Little Gables each have about 3,200 residents, according to county figures, so if both areas are annexed, the population of Coral Gables would expand by nearly 13 percent, from 51,000 to 57,600. That translates as a need for added police and fire protection, along with other services.

A Coral Gables study in 2017 found that taxable revenue from the two areas would total $81.7 million over eight years starting in 2020, producing a revenue surplus of $37.6 million over estimated costs. The average property owner in Little Gables would see an increase of $311 in annual taxes by joining Coral Gables. The comparable figure in High Pines/Ponce-Davis is $946, according to the county.

In touting the advantages of annexation, city officials promise faster police and fire response times, road resurfacing, improved drainage, new sidewalks and spruced-up parks. But High Pines resident Austin Matheson doesn’t buy it.

“My services seem more than adequate,” he says. “My trash gets picked up regularly, taxes what they are. I don’t see the benefits.”

High Pines resident Austin Matheson with his children in their tree house

“Coral Gables officials have implied in so many words that our social status would be elevated if we were part of Coral Gables,” says Matheson, great-grandson of industrialist William John Matheson, whose family donated the land that became Matheson Hammock Park. “That’s borderline offensive.” On its website, the city pledges to preserve neighborhood identity and respect existing county building codes, as was done in the earlier annexations of Snapper Creek, Pine Bay Estates and Hammock Lakes. That pledge of respect is important, especially in High Pines.

My trash gets picked up regularly, taxes are what they are. I don’t see the benefits…

Austin Matheson

“A lot of us are passionate about our unique little High Pines community,” says Elizabeth Smith, a marketing consultant. “We are so close-knit that it doesn’t take a hurricane to get us outdoors; we walk and talk and visit and help each other out all the time.”

Both areas are contiguous to existing Coral Gables boundaries, flanked by the city on three sides. But the two areas are strikingly different.

A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Little Gables is a mix of single-family homes – some handsome and historic, some tiny and rundown on small lots – along with apartment blocks and a commercial strip along Southwest 8th Street. The median household income is $53,775, as compared to $91,452 in Coral Gables.

The enclave includes Graceland Memorial Park, a 14-acre cemetery on 8th Street with the notoriety of being the final resting place of Cuban-born Watergate burglar Bernard Barker. Next door to the cemetery is a 90-unit trailer park that city officials say would eventually be phased out. The same would be true for some of the establishments on 8th Street – like a by-the-hour motel a liated with the Executive Fantasy Hotel chain. (Two hours in the Love Suite, $33). On its southern border, contrarywise, are charming homes and shady San Jacinto Park.

The Executive Fantasy Hotel in Little Gables

High Pines/Ponce-Davis is considerably more upscale. Median household income of the proposed annexation area is $116,437, higher than that of Coral Gables by 27 percent. The area feels like the Gables, replete with large, elegant homes and tree-lined streets.

The area includes several schools, including Our Lady of Lourdes Academy and Sunset Elementary, the massive Epiphany Church, and the historic Doc Thomas House, the headquarters of Tropical Audubon Society, built in 1932. The neighborhood is where poet Robert Frost kept his “Pencil Pines” home on several acres at what is now 8101 SW 53rd Ave. No longer accessible to the public, the poet lived in a clearing of scrub pines here for a couple of decades starting in the 1940s. High Pines also comes with several commercial properties on the east side of Red Road, including a gas station, a CVS drug store and a couple of restaurants.

A work shed in the backyard of the Tropical Audobon Society headquarters in High Pines/Ponce-Davis

Commissioner Michael Mena voted against annexing Little Gables, citing several potential problems, including the costs of providing police protection and how to deal with the trailer park.

Commissioner Patricia Keon voted in favor of both annexations, despite some reservations about Little Gables. “The residents of the area do want to join Coral Gables, and it allows us to have clean borders,” she says. “But there is activity along Southwest 8th Street – hourly motel rentals, car break-ins – that are concerning.”

As for the trailer park, “we will have to work out how to eventually phase out that use,” Keon says. “That is not a use we intend to have in our zoning code.” However, says the commission, annexation is the right thing to do. “I personally believe that municipalities are better able to deliver services than regional government, particularly with regard to public safety.”

Annexation Pros and Cons

Pros for the Residents:

  • Increases home values
  • Provides better police protection
  • Provides better services (sanitation, fire)
  • More responsive local government
  • Stronger zoning codes

Cons for the Residents:

  • Increases taxes
  • Increases code enforcement

Pros for the City:

  • Makes the city’s borders more logical
  • Improves the city’s security
  • Provides additional tax revenue
  • Increases city population
  • Allows zoning upgrades for “pockets”

Cons for the City:

  • Initial expense of incorporating the areas
  • The cost for providing additional services