Navigating South Florida’s Rapid Development and Legal Landscape: Insights from the University of Miami Business Law Review Fireside Chat

Kaitlyn Jauregui – South Florida’s rapid development and its legal implications took center stage in a recent fireside chat hosted by the University of Miami Business Law Review. The panel, moderated by Professor Thomas F. Nealon III, provided a comprehensive exploration of the opportunities and challenges associated with our local region’s growth. Florida is a magnet for domestic migration with approximately 1,200 people relocating to the Sunshine State each day. Such an influx inevitably leads to increased residential and commercial construction activities, shaping the landscape of Miami-Dade County. Against this backdrop, a panel of experts delved into the ethical considerations, city planning, historical litigation, and environmental impacts at play.

One of the central themes of the discussion was the role of ethics in ensuring equitable development practices. Miriam Soler Ramos, partner at Holland & Knight, led this dialogue as her practice area includes land use, zoning, government procurement, and government ethics compliance law. She served as city attorney for the City of Coral Gables, Florida, and as deputy general counsel for the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, among other key government roles. Ms. Ramos underscored the importance of ethics codes and regulations in guiding the decision-making processes of elected officials, city planners, and developers. The main ethical concerns in development are avoiding bribery or undue influence. While ethics serve as a guiding principle, she noted the challenges in enforcing ethical behavior in actual practice. Elected officials serve as both policymakers and quasi-judicial decision-makers, roles in which they must balance community interests with property rights. She highlighted the need for transparency mechanisms to hold both public and private actors accountable and to ensure that development projects benefit the broader community. Ms. Ramos now takes her ethical guidance from local to statewide as she has been appointed by The Florida Bar Board of Governors to serve on the Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. 

“Having a confident and empowered city or county attorney is really important because they’re the backstop to telling the elected officials and the employees what they can and can’t do.” – Miriam Soler Ramos

Moreover, the fireside chat provided valuable insights into the historical context and impact of local development on the region’s ecosystems thanks to Dr. Stephanie Clements. Dr. Clements is the Education & Advocacy Director at Tropical Audubon Society, a local non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve and restore South Florida ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats. The Everglades, once twice the size of New Jersey, suffered from extensive drainage and development since the late-1800s. The new flow of water through man-made canals led to habitat loss, wildlife decline, and water pollution. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was initiated in 2000, but recent development threatens its success. Dr. Clements advocates for smart growth by advocating to uphold the Urban Development Boundary and advises that protecting ecosystems is crucial for both humans and wildlife as our county continues to develop.

“So how can we help protect the Everglades and our other ecosystems through advocacy? First of all, we can advocate for funding Everglades restoration and for CERP [Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan].  There’s lots of other environmental advocacy opportunities, including protecting Pine Rocklands, Septic to Sewer Conversion to protect Biscayne Bay, supporting fertilizer ordinances, and more[.]” – Dr. Stephanie Clements

In addition to ethical and environmental considerations, the discussion delved into the legal challenges facing the construction industry in South Florida. Erin Weinstock is an associate at RumbergerKirk, focusing on construction and casualty litigation. Ms. Weinstock highlighted the prevalence of construction defect litigation and the legislative efforts aimed at mitigating such disputes. Construction defect litigation in South Florida has surged since 2008, with notable increases post-COVID. Senate Bill 360 addresses this by aiming to limit such lawsuits by shortening the timeframe for filing claims and defining stricter criteria for building code violations. Ambiguity remains though regarding terms like “substantial harm” that require context to interpret. The bill requires pre-suit notification to contractors and developers under Florida Statute § 558. Despite government efforts to limit lawsuits brought to court, challenges persist in distinguishing legitimate claims from trivial ones. Ms. Weinstock anticipates clarity as case law develops.

“The Florida government has noticed that courts and jurists are going to be overwhelmed by this immense amount of litigation that’s coming in on this issue.” – Erin Weinstock speaking on construction defect litigation

There is no efficient discussion about housing strategy if transportation is not involved. Victor Dover is an urban designer, city planner and cofounder of Dover, Kohl & Partners Town Planning. Mr. Dover introduced the fireside chat to the complexities of urban planning and zoning regulations, emphasizing the challenge of achieving a harmonious balance between residential and commercial areas in cities. There is no perfect equilibrium in urban development as there is a constant evolution of societal needs and technological advancements. Mr. Dover values human flourishing as the primary goal of urban development. Design principles such as building-to-street relationships and urban greenery withstand the test of time. He claims transit-oriented development is a key solution to address housing affordability and transportation challenges. Mr. Dover encourages initiatives like the rapid transit zone, which incentivizes development near transit corridors to reduce car dependency. He argued for a reevaluation of zoning policies to allow for greater density and mixed-use developments. Mr. Dover advocates for a more flexible and market-driven approach to urban planning as Miami-Dade infrastructure adapts to population demands.

“The city plan isn’t like a Swiss clock, that we have a mechanism we can wind up and turn loose and let run. It’s messier than that. And all of you that are involved in real property and in land use law are going to have a career built around the imbalances that your clients are asking for permission to correct.” – Victor Dover

The University of Miami Business Law Review Fireside Chat provided a thought-provoking exploration of how South Florida is adapting to the influx of residents. From ethical considerations to environmental conservation efforts, the panelists offered valuable insights and recommendations for navigating the complexities of growth and sustainability. As South Florida continues to evolve, collaborative efforts between local businesses and government will be essential to ensure a vibrant and resilient future for generations to come.

To watch a video of the full panel, click here.

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