Miami developer Jorge Perez and a business partner, New York developer Stephen Ross, want to move development rights from downtown Miami to Watson Island. Their thinking was they could build a much larger mixed-use project on the island than the one approved in 2004.

The city, which owns the land, seems to be on board with their plans.

But downtown Miami resident Stephen Herbits filed suit Tuesday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court trying to force the city to disclose public documents on the developers’ plan.

Herbits claims Perez’s Related Group and Ross’ Related Cos. are trying to circumvent the city’s permitting process.

“When politicians slink around and manipulate the established legal process … the public has every reason to believe they are doing something wrong,” Herbits said in a statement. “There is no substitute for transparency when citizens’ rights and public dollars are at stake.”

This is Herbits’ second time suing the city to stop development of the proposed Island Gardens project on a section of Watson Island between downtown Miami and Miami Beach. Herbits lost his first bid in 2006, but his fight forced developer Flagstone Property Group, which is proposing the mixed-use project, to miss the last real estate cycle.

Herbits “is attempting the whole thing all over again,” said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. “But Perez and Ross are a whole different entity. They will have a lot more ability to deal with him than the previous folks. This is nothing more than this guy saying, ‘I haven’t won yet, but let me take another shot at this.’ “

The lawsuit was assigned to Circuit Judge Abby Cynamon.

Perez and Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, are trying to decide whether to partner with Flagstone to co-develop the project. But their decision is contingent on city approval to expand Flagstone’s original plan.

Perez and Ross propose to transfer the development rights to 300,000 square feet of retail space from downtown Miami. That would bring Flagstone’s proposed retail space on the island to 575,000 square feet, up from the proposed 225,000 square feet. Their proposal also calls for transferring 100 hotel rooms from downtown Miami to allow 705 on the island.

Perez told the Daily Business Review last month that he envisions a dining, entertainment and retail center similar to CityPlace in West Palm Beach, which was built by Ross and partners.

Public Debate

The transfer of the development rights should be analyzed and reviewed by the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which decades ago secured the development rights to downtown and the portion of the island subject to development from the state, Herbits claims. Yet the DDA seems to have been cut out of the discussion, depriving residents and business owners of an opportunity to learn about the project and their concerns, he maintains.

The proposed expansion was scheduled to go before the DDA board led by Sarnoff on July 21. But the item was “inexplicably withdrawn” from the agenda, according to the complaint. The DDA expressed some concerns about approving the Island Gardens expansion without “thoroughly” analyzing the traffic impact and the retail development right transfer. Herbits learned of those concerns after obtaining DDA records.

“It is apparent … that the city of Miami is attempting to bypass legal requirements and public debate over a hugely consequential change to the community’s approved land-use regime — and attempting to do it in secret and in a hurry,” according to his court complaint. DDA member Jose Goyanes said issues affecting downtown Miami must go before the board, and it was unacceptable to pull the item from the agenda at the last minute. “I have a problem with that,” said Goyanes, who is not involved in the lawsuit. “It was a slap in the face to the board members not having the item come before us.”

Sarnoff said he removed the item from the agenda after being advised by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees development right transfers in Development of Regional Impact areas like downtown Miami.

The department said the proposed transfer would need to be approved only by the Miami city manager under a state law intended to streamline the permitting process for new developments, Sarnoff said.

“In that scenario, why would I put a vote in front of a board with the potential for a different result than what the manager may determine it to be?” he asked. “The board would then look a little bit foolish or powerless.”

Herbits said the city should be able to respond to his June 7 public records request seeking all correspondence and communications between city officials and the Related companies. The lawsuit contains a single count: enforcement of the public records law.

Herbits sees the city’s lack of response as a way of keeping public participation at bay.

“The Miami Commission is … trying to conduct its business behind closed doors, rushing major decisions through the system so the public can’t participate with the knowledge and organization needed to match the millions that developers spend,” Herbits said.

Greenberg Traurig land development shareholder Iris Escarra, who represents the Related companies, said she had not seen the lawsuit and had no comment on it.