Where is the money? Politicians' failed promises hurt homeowners near I-95

Did officials divert funds to relocate residents hurt by I-95 expansion?

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – A group of Miami-Dade County residents has spent years dealing with the effects of living with one of the country's busiest interstates running along their properties, and they have been waiting for officials to make good on a promise. 

Amid safety concerns and health issues, the residents said Miami-Dade County pledged to relocate them and demolish their homes, but years after that agreement, the funds to do so are gone. 

The noise and the smells from the traffic on Interstate 95, just feet away, are immediately noticeable at Sybel W. Lee's home at Northwest 100th Street and Northwest Sixth Avenue.

"It's not my home anymore," Lee said, adding that she still lives there even though it doesn't feel like home. 

The 73-year-old retired adult educator said I-95 was a distant neighbor when she moved to the house in 1985. Over the years, she has watched helplessly as I-95 kept expanding, eventually ending nearly within arm's reach from her back door.

Sybel W. Lee said she needs Miami-Dade County officials to follow up on their promise to relocate her.

Lee said she lives with constant fear that a vehicle crash could send the barrier wall crashing onto her home. 

"I want this nightmare to end," Lee said. "It needs to end."

The group cites noise and pollution among the issues leading all of them to suffer from various health problems, including respiratory illness.

Lee's next door neighbor, Mary McMinn, even sealed up her home's rear-facing windows with concrete in an effort to keep out the fumes. 

Nathaniel Williams, 85, said his home used to be far away from Interstate 95, but its expansion continues to cause him property damage and is hurting his health.

Nathaniel Williams, 85, lives up the road at Northwest 116th Street. The U.S. Army veteran said he is forced to sleep on his couch because of leaks from cracks in his damaged roof, which he attributes to the vibrations from I-95 traffic. 

"It's caused me more pain," Williams said. "I have dizzy spells because of the fumes from the motors out here."

All three neighbors said their septic systems are also damaged to the point where they are unable to flush toilet paper. 

In 2000, the neighbors teamed up to lobby elected officials. Two years later, they got the news that they had hoped for -- then-Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler told them Miami-Dade County was getting the money to buy their homes and relocate them.

"I had everything packed up, almost packed up," Williams said.  

But the money never made it to them. Finding out where it went has been an ongoing source of pain for them. In 2003, records show, the Florida Department of Transportation gave Miami-Dade County more than $781,000 to buy and demolish the homes and put a park in their place.

Local 10 News obtained documents from the FDOT showing Miami-Dade County pulled the project suddenly in 2006.

That same year, FDOT's notes document a meeting between newly elected Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and Jose Luis Mesa, then-director of Miami-Dade County's Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Records show they recommended the funds be diverted to other local projects, such as sidewalks and landscaping on the Venetian Causeway and for a pedestrian safety education program. 

Over the years, Lee and her neighbors have appeared before Miami-Dade County commissioners, repeatedly asking what happened to the money and never getting a clear answer. 

"I think there's no way a person should live this way. ... I don't know where the funds are, nor do I have any knowledge of the funds," Edmonson in 2007.

"They're blaming me when all of this started occurring before I even got on the commission," Edmonson said in 2012.

Audrey Edmonson said she isn't allowed to discuss if she recommended the divertion of funds that the state granted to relocate the residents who were hurt by the expansion of Interstate 95.

It has been seven years since Edmonson made that statement, and Lee said she feels abandoned by her representatives.

"They're passing the buck," Lee said. "This one says it's his fault, but they got the money."

In February, Sen. Jason Pizzo went directly to the Miami-Dade County's Transportation Planning Organization to raise the issue and urge leaders to make good on the initial promise.

Lee and other residents said Miami-Dade County made them a follow-up offer in 2015 at the current appraised value for the properties, a fraction of the original offer, with no relocation costs covered. 

Sen. Jason Pizzo is advocating for the residents who were affected by the I-95 expansion.

"The original value was agreed upon," Pizzo said. "They were told the money was there and they never got it." 

Edmonson, now the commission's chairwoman, declined a formal request for an interview, but when confronted at a recent commission meeting, she said her attorneys had advised her not to speak about the issue.

When asked about the 2006 meeting and the decision to divert the funds, she said, "I'm recalling that. That was after the money had been pulled back by the state." 

When pressed about receiving the money, Edmonson left the dais. 

Residents show how the I-95 expansion affected their homes in north Miami-Dade County.

"It's just terrible," Williams said. "The whole aspect of the thing. It's unbelievable that they would do this."

The homeowners said when they filed a federal lawsuit last year, county attorneys made them a new offer -- $500 each. They refused and that suit was dismissed, but it could be re-filed in state court. 

A representative for the FDOT said the agency did not have a statement to provide regarding the situation.

"We're not going to die no time soon," Lee said. "Because that's what they're waiting on, for us to die."

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