Lake Carmen residents fight for their urban oasis

A development project involving former North Miami mayor is pushing its limits

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – A group of homeowners surrounding a lake in northwest Miami-Dade County are fighting to protect the waterfront views and the wildlife that attracted them to the area.

Daton Fullard is one of the homeowners. For more than two decades, he has lived on Lake Carmen, which is bordered by Northwest 22nd to 17th avenues and 115th to 119th streets.

"My nieces, nephews, cousins, family, everybody likes to come here to just sort of hang out and have a little ambiance," he said. "It's basically a place for us to get away from everything and relax a little bit."

Over the years, Fullard and the other residents have developed a bond with both the lake and it's surrounding wildlife – especially the birds. Living with nature, he said, "makes you feel like you've been given a caretaker responsibility."

One day last year, the rumble of trucks and heavy machinery pierced the tranquility of his urban oasis.

"Huge concrete piling, grinding metal, grounding on site," Fullard said.

The construction was in the Westside Wellfield Protection Area -- which may involve environmental controls.

Miami-Dade County records show RRR Z Developer purchased Lake Carmen October 2014. Former Mayor of North Miami Joe Celestin was the developer, officials said.

Fullard wasn't alone in his horror. Other homeowners also began to take notice of the construction and began to collect evidence.

The developer based out of Opa-Locka had a "soil improvement permit" for a plot of land next to Lake Carmen. The permit allowed for the construction of a single family home, which was meant to be a model home.

"You don't need all that equipment to build a house," homeowner Richard Johnson said. 

The developers vision was an exclusive development of 45 single-family homes that may sell for at least half a million dollars each. But they started off on the wrong foot. From the industrial equipment on the property to evidence of some lake filling, Miami-Dade County officials eventually determined RRR Z Developer were breaking the rules.

Johnson contacted authorities Nov. 11 to report that constructors were filling Lake Carmen. About a week later, Eric Miller, a Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental inspector reported that workers had cleared the lake's edge, but he could not positively determine if lake filling had occurred.

Inspectors conducted further analysis and by Dec. 16, they confirmed Johnson's suspicions. Authorities determined "some filling had occurred along a limited portion of the lake" and issued the first notice of violation to the developer Dec. 18. And upon determining the developer's compliance, the case was closed Dec. 22nd.

But within three weeks homeowners noticed the construction project was back. And so was the fight in Fullard.

"We're not going to let that happen to this lake if we can stop it. And we're determined to stop it," Fullard said. "There shouldn't be a homeowner that sits on a lake in any county in Florida who shouldn't be nervous about what's happening right here in this community."?

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Homeowners accused Ricardo Rodriguez, of RRR Z Developer, of lying and being rude.

"We don't back filling the lake," Rodriguez said. "We (are) waiting for permits to back fill the lake. But we don't have the permits yet but that's why we don't back fill the lake yet."

Rodriguez said Celestin was the planner. And although authorities said RRR Z Developer failed to obtain a permit to commence work filling the lake, Celestin said he didn't know anything about the plans to fill the lake.

"I am not aware of any form of illegal lake-filling," Celestin said. He added that they are planning to follow the permitting process, which includes public hearings. But complained about the neighbors concerns.

"I don't see how homeowners have anything to do with somebody who has the legal right to purchase a property to develop," Celestin said.

Fullard said Rodriguez and Celestin were arrogant.

"To come into a community, basically tell the home owners in that community, ‘I just bought your lake and I'm going to back fill it and there's absolutely nothing you all can do about it," Fullard said.

He and a group of homeowners packed an elementary school library for a Little River Homeowners Association meeting Jan. 27. The Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources' (DERM) top staff worked to show the residents that they were working on the case.

 "Somehow [we are going to] do what [we] can to try to protect this area so that future generations of the birds try to keep their cycle of behavior, their migratory patterns and stuff in place," Fullard said. "It's a wonderful place for them to have to kind of come and take advantage of and not have anybody bother them."

Despite the evidence that the residents collected showing toxic fluids were leaking onto the ground, Celestin and Rodriguez claimed they were doing nothing wrong. There was heavy equipment illegally parked on the site. There was a fence erected around the property without the proper permits.

One day Rodriguez was angry and said: "You guys better just stick the photos up your a--."

Following a Jan. 12 inspection, DERM issued the developer two more notices. And on Monday, DERM slapped them with several more. Lourdes Gomez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources referred to the case as "unique."

"I don't think we do nothing illegal," Rodriguez said. "We probably overpass the limit of the law, but we thought that we going to be nothing wrong with that because we buy whole property."

But the nightmare is not over for the residents of Lake Carmen. On Tuesday, inspectors reported there were still six pieces of industrial equipment on the site.

"We buy the property and we wait for the permit," Rodriguez said. "We gonna take everything back. All the equipment to another property. And when we have the property permits again we gonna bring the equipment back again."

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