Smack in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood in West Kendall lie nearly 230 acres that are physically in Miami-Dade County, but soon may fall out of the county’s control.
Since 2001, the land in suburban Kendale Lakes has belonged to the Miccosukee Golf & Country Club. Two years later, the Miccosukees asked the federal government to designate it tribal trust land — a change that would strip the county of its existing regulatory authority and do away with a zoning restriction prohibiting development.
This summer, the U.S. Department of the Interior granted the Miccosukee’s request.
Now the county is appealing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision, saying the federal government did not give due weight to concerns on matters including drainage, zoning and public safety that would be affected by having a slice of a sovereign Indian nation in the heart of a residential neighborhood.
In its appeal, the county called the decision “unreasonable and also erroneous,” arguing that the Bureau did not consider the objections Miami-Dade first raised in 2003 — including the possibility that the property could some day house a casino.
Topping Miami-Dade’s concerns: the county’s inability, under the new trust designation, to enforce an existing, 99-year zoning restriction known as a covenant from 1972 that requires the property to remain a golf course.
The covenant requires that any zoning change have the consent of three-quarters of neighbors and a majority of county commissioners. The county, in its appeal filed last month, opposed lifting that restriction.
The federal government’s decision, issued in July by Randall Trickey, acting director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ eastern region, repeatedly says the Miccosukee have no plans to change the use of the property. The tribe, Trickey wrote, plans to continue to bring guests of its gaming resort, which is five miles away, to Kendale Lakes to play golf.
In a statement to The Miami Herald, Miccosukee Chairman Colley Billie touted the change in the golf course’s designation but did not elaborate on the tribe’s plans for the property.
“Placing the Miccosukee Golf Course in trust for the Tribe will continue to benefit all South Floridians by generating more family-style recreation as well as much-needed jobs and other forms of economic development for our communities,” he said.
Through a spokeswoman, the county administration declined to comment, citing the pending appeal.
The possibility of turning the golf course into a casino was raised by former County Manager George Burgess in a 2003 memo listing objections to the trust designation.
“If the Tribe decides to incorporate a casino on the property or change the use, the County can expect a substantial increase in traffic and calls for service in the area on and around the property,” he wrote. “The cost of servicing the local area would increase and the burden of funding police service would fall upon the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County.”
In his decision, Trickey said that the concern about potential gambling on the property is “without foundation.”
“My analysis of the Tribe’s request reveals that the proposed acquisition is not for gaming purposes,” he wrote.
Still, the possibility looms in the minds of residents.
In its appeal, the county chided the federal government for not notifying neighbors about the Miccosukees’ request, or giving them an opportunity to have a say. The county recently contacted Michael Rosenberg, president of the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations, to spread the word about the new designation.
At a beauty salon in a small strip mall across the street from the golf course, none of the patrons knew about the county’s spat with the federal government over the Miccosukees’ request. Yet, unprompted, they asked about gambling.
“But if they wanted to build a casino, that wouldn’t even be the spot for it,” Marla Ruiz, a 29-year-old medical biller who lives in Kendale Lakes, said last week.
“This is a community of older people,” said Lissette Velasco, also of Kendale Lakes. “A casino would disturb things.”
County Commissioner Javier Souto, who represents the area, said in an interview that he has not spoken to tribe leaders about the property. But, he warned, “There’s a casino fever in town.”
“I don’t know if they want to convert that into condominiums, or if they want to have casinos, or a combination of both,” said Souto, adding that he is not against “controlled” gambling. “We need to expect the worst, hope for the best, ask the questions, be prepared, be on the alert.”
Even if the property were to remain a golf course, the county argues, Miami-Dade would lose its say over a slew of regulatory and municipal services currently provided there.
The horseshoe-shaped, 27-hole golf course wraps around single-family homes, town houses and low-rise apartment complexes. Most are across the street from the course, but a few sit on the edge of the property — and use the golf course to drain storm water. The county fears it would no longer be able to oversee that drainage.
It also says that environmental regulators won’t have authority over the lakes on the golf course that are linked to the county’s canal system, which helps prevent flooding.
“It is essential that these properties would continue to be regulated by local land use agencies to protect the rights of those in the immediate vicinity, as well as those in the community as a whole,” Burgess wrote.
Any potential development on the golf course would not be required to follow compatibility regulations, or meet standards for new roads, schools, green space and other improvements the county imposes on new construction. The Miccosukees would also no longer have to pay nearly $65,000 in property taxes.
And the Miami-Dade Police Department would lose sole jurisdiction over the area.
The department and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office would have to work with Miccosukee police, a relationship that has been strained in the past when the tribe has cited its sovereign-nation status to block local law enforcement efforts.
Both the county and the state attorney’s office noted the concern in 2003. The police department warned it “would no longer routinely patrol the area.”
But the Miccosukees disagree, according to Trickey, the federal official, who said that jurisdictional challenges arise every time property becomes part of a tribe’s trust.
The county’s other concerns were not specific enough to the golf course, he added. The Miccosukees, he wrote, have their own in-house personnel to oversee any building or public works issues following local standards.
“While there is always a potential for jurisdictional problems and/or land use conflicts, it is not anticipated that the unchanged use of the property will create new or unique jurisdictional issues as a result of the acquisition of the property in trust of the Tribe,” Trickey wrote.
He noted that the golf course falls within the tribe’s historical geographic range and that, while the golf and country club “continues to fall short of breaking even,” the tribe could make it profitable if it follows through with its projected decrease in expenditures and increase in revenues over the next few years.
The tribe has spent $4 million in upgrades to the property, according to Trickey, to host the annual Miccosukee Championship PGA Nationwide Tour. Planned improvements include refurbishing the irrigation system, giving the clubhouse a makeover and building a golf-cart storage area.
Several Kendale Lakes residents called the golf course a good neighbor but also expressed dismay that the zoning restriction against development on the property would be lifted.
“When we bought [our house], that’s what it was supposed to be,” longtime activist Reinaldo Martinez said of the golf course, which is about five blocks from his home.
He said that the new Miccosukee trust designation, which he learned about from a reporter, “sounds terrible. There’s gonna be one of two things: Either they’re going to do a casino or something, or they’re going to do a high rise,” he said.
Then he recalled past battles that the neighborhood has fought against the county: Over a proposed mixed-used development that commissioners eventually voted down, and over the county’s misuse of money collected from Kendale Lakes’ special taxing district.
“I’ve never seen the county look after our interests,” he said with a sigh.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.