Strict codes make Florida's Coral Gables a paradise for some, prison for others

June 16, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- For nearly 70 years, this Mediterranean-style suburb of Miami has remained a shady pocket of Old World decorum amid the razzle-dazzle growth of sunny South Florida.

The muted colors of its buildings, the deep shadows cast by its exotic trees, the very mood of Coral Gables have been carefully guarded from change by what may be the strictest set of city codes anywhere.

Among other things, the codes ban the outdoor parking of pickups and vans overnight, outlaw street vendors and used-car lots, even forbid swimming in private pools near churches on Sunday mornings.

The code also requires that cats wear bells outdoors and mandates that pet monkeys be kept out of sight at all times.

"It's a pretty place to live, so there's an element of envy," said Sean Rowe, a reporter for the New Times, a local alternative newspaper. "But lots of folks hate the place on principle. Coral Gables is such an easy target, it's almost created a whole genre of journalism."

The New Times, a liberal weekly that relishes taking shots at the staid suburb of 45,000, often quotes verbatim some of the more startling passages of the city code book.

One such passage calls for the execution of any cat caught killing a bird:

"If a belled or unbelled cat at large shall kill any bird not disabled from flight, any person may, and it is hereby made the duty of all members of the police and fire departments to kill such a cat, in as humane a manner as the circumstances permit."

The paper wrote in denouncing a city plan to wall in a golf course: "It is said that George Orwell maintained a summer residence here for research purposes."

A few hours after the edition hit the streets, the city hauled away seven of the paper's news boxes for failing to comply with Chapter 28, Section VI of the city code. The section requires that news boxes have "gloss brown pedestals, gloss beige sides and door, and gloss brown coin box." The New Times box was bright red.

"Everyone usually rolls their eyes and says, 'It's Coral Gables,' " said New Times Editor Julie Felden. "But this time, they crossed the line."

The New Times challenged the city's ordinance on First Amendment grounds. The paper won a temporary injunction to return its boxes to the streets pending a full court hearing in June.

City officials claim that their actions are based on aesthetics, not censorship. The city, which also pulled the boxes of such major ** papers as the Miami Herald, the New York Times and USA Today, had long planned to remove the news boxes that didn't comply with the ordinance, officials said.

"I guess it was a coincidence," said Sanford A. Youkilis, an assistant city manager. He said the strict regulations were what made Coral Gables a model planned community.

"The price of maintaining the quality of a city like this is eternal vigilance. We encourage tattletales. It's civic pride to catch your neighbor breaking an ordinance."

Built during South Florida's real estate boom in the 1920s, Coral Gables was one of the nation's first fully planned communities.

Its founder, local developer George Merrick, dreamed of re-creating the grace of a Mediterranean village in the humid pine lands and grapefruit groves of South Florida. The buildings were made of native rock or stucco, aged to give the weathered look of Old Europe. There were winding streets and leafy plazas, as well as elegant coral gates to mark the entrances to the city.

Mr. Merrick also built a grand hotel with a tower patterned after the cathedral of Seville, dug 40 miles of canals for gondolas and excavated an exotic pool with a waterfall, Venetian lampposts and a bridge.

But the boom didn't last, the housing market crashed, and in 1928 the commissioners of the city of his dreams kicked Mr. Merrick out. During the Depression, buildings sat half-finished, and mortgages were foreclosed. When things picked up after World War II, the city began to lose much of its charm.

To recapture Mr. Merrick's Mediterranean dream, city officials and historians dusted off the old codes and added new ones. They regulated the color of paint for buildings and the size of "for sale" signs.

Most residents like the strict codes. But one, firefighter George "Rocky" Smith, challenged the city when it cited him for violating a concept known as "the triangle of visibility." They said Mr. Smith had to take his 6-foot hedge down 3 feet.

Mr. Smith refused, calling his town "a suburb of Third Reich Germany." He collected 200 signatures from sympathetic neighbors and appealed his case before the enforcement board. He lost.

As a final act of defiance, Mr. Smith trimmed his hedge to #F conform with the letter of the code but not the spirit.

"It's an abomination," he said. "It looks like it had a haircut in the middle."

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