Key Biscayne

Judge dismisses Matheson challenge on Crandon Park tennis center

A judge on Thursday threw out a lawsuit that sought to overturn a November 2012 referendum in which voters approved expanding the Crandon Park tennis center.

Without comment, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher dismissed a suit by Bruce Matheson, a descendant of the family that ceded the land to the county to create Crandon Park more than 70 years ago. Matheson had claimed that the ballot language for the measure was misleading because it omitted the full scope of the $50 million expansion plan as well as precise lease terms.

Matheson sued after voters overwhelmingly supported a proposal by Miami-Dade County and organizers of the Sony Open tennis tournament to expand the center’s facilities within the existing footprint. Matheson also disputed the county and International Players Championship’s public assurances that all costs of the expansion would be borne by the private organization.

But in a three-hour hearing Thursday, laywers for the county and IPC persuaded the judge that the ballot language adequately summarized the proposal, noting that it pointed voters to a Miami-Dade Commission resolution that spelled it out in detail.

They also rebutted claims by Matheson and his attorney, Enrique Arana, that proponents had concealed the fact that taxpayers could be on the hook for millions of dollars in capital improvements and potential environmental remediation at the tennis center, noting that those costs apply only to the existing facilities, for whose upkeep the county is already responsible.

In fact, said assistant county attorney Oren Rosenthal and IPC attorney Gene Stearns, the deal will significantly reduce the county’s operating outlay for the tennis center while delivering a substantially improved facility that will be available for public use for all but the two weeks of the Sony Open.

Rosenthal took aim at Matheson for asking the judge to throw out more than 500,000 votes cast in favor of the project, a 72 percent majority, for what he termed “an election of one.’’

“It’s not Mr. Matheson’s park,’’ Stearns told the judge. “It belongs to the public.’’

Schumacher’s ruling doesn’t end litigation over the expansion plan, however. IPC has separately sued the county over its handling of a previous settlement with Matheson that paved the way for construction of the tennis center 20 years ago.

Matheson had sued to stop the center, arguing it violated deed restrictions placed on the park property by his family when it ceded it to the county in exchange for construction of Rickenbacker Causeway.

In managing the agreement that allowed the center to be built, IPC contends that the county has granted Matheson undue control over Crandon Park, including effective veto power over park improvements and events.

On Thursday, Arana, Matheson’s attorney, contended that voters should have been told that the expansion plan violates a ban on commercial expansion and construction of more than one permanent structure under the settlement. The expansion plan adds three smaller, permanent stadiums and expands existing facilities.

Arana said his client intends to appeal the dismissal.

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