Miami-Dade County on Tuesday fought for the right to sell David Beckham land for a stadium in a no-bid deal, making its case before an appeals court at a time when it's not clear the retired soccer star even wants the public property anymore.
Beckham's lawyers are using activist Bruce Matheson's lawsuit against the $9 million county land deal to delay making a $901,500 down payment on the three acres of Miami-Dade land in Overtown. Meanwhile, Beckham's negotiating team, now led by new partner Jorge Mas, is pursuing a different site several miles away at Miami's Melreese golf course.
Hours after the hearing in front of Florida's Third District of Appeal, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that the county would postpone the June 8 payment until after the Matheson suit concludes. The decision avoids a showdown over a deadline for the Beckham group to keep intact a nine-acre stadium site the partners assembled off the Miami River in Overtown.
The site was picked and secured months before Mas and his brother José joined the venture and promptly began searching for other places to play Major League Soccer.
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The bid for another site raises the stakes for the appeals decision, since a quick win for the county and Beckham could actually cause more complications than would a drawn-out wait for a ruling.
There's a chance the three-judge panel that heard arguments from both sides will rule swiftly and decisively for the county after Tuesday's oral arguments. That would also eliminate the justification for delaying $901,500 payment and force the Beckham group to pay up if it wants to keep the Overtown site in play.
Only one judge, Robert Luck, asked questions during the hearing, and he hit both sides with challenges to their legal arguments.
Weeks after county commissioners approved the deal in June 2017, Matheson sued to block the transaction, saying Miami-Dade wrongly cited Florida's economic-development law in justifying the no-bid sale. The Beckham partners made their first $450,000 down payment in August, despite the Matheson suit. The Mas brothers joined the partnership in the fall.
A trial court later ruled with Miami-Dade, saying Florida allows local governments to contribute property to recruit companies and support ventures that would create jobs and boost the economy.
"The competitive bidding statutes in Florida is one of the most important statutes on the books," said Richard Ovelmen, lead lawyer for Matheson. Heir to a family that was once a major land holder in Miami-Dade, Matheson owns property near the Overtown site and helped lead the opposition to county approval of Beckham's stadium plans there.
Luck pointed to examples of Florida law that allow governments to sell land without going through a competitive bidding process. He cited affordable housing statutes where developers can buy land for nominal amounts, and laws allowing other governments and non-profits to acquire county land for public purposes.
"You state at least 15 times in your brief that any property must go through this procedure" of competitive bidding, Luck said.
The line of questioning favored the county's reasoning that while Florida's economic-development statute does not explicitly allow for no-bid deals, it wouldn't make sense to subject job-creating projects to better offers. Oren Rosenthal, an assistant county attorney, told Luck that negotiating a deal to bring a company to county land would fall apart if another bidder could just step in and buy the designated site for a slightly higher price.
"This challenge is an attempt to legislate by litigation," Rosenthal said. "Mr. Matheson disagrees with what the county did with [the Beckham deal] and with what the state ultimately did in adopting its economic-development statute."
Luck asked why the economic-development statute doesn't spell out an exemption to the state law requiring competitive bidding for government land deals.
"Certainly the legislature knows how to use 'not withstanding.' They do it constantly when they want to say: 'Ignore everything else,' " Luck said. "In this instance, they didn't."
Luck's monopoly on the questioning suggests he'll draft the opinion for the three-judge panel that heard Matheson v. Miami-Dade. The Beckham partnership joined the suit as a co-defendant, and had a lawyer speak briefly at Tuesday's hearing.
The court's ultimate decision could extend the litigation timetable — giving the Beckham group more time to delay the $901,500 payment while it pursues Melreese. The court could send the case back to the trial level, or issue a ruling that the losing side could appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
But the court could also end the case by issuing a ruling without a written decision. Those rulings aren't subject to further appeal, but also don't set precedent for future cases.
That kind of quick decision could leave the Beckham group having to pay nearly $1 million to keep the Overtown site alive as it pursues a far more uncertain deal for Melreese.
Securing the 140-acre city golf course requires striking a lease deal with Miami, and then winning voter approval in a city referendum expected in November. Should the Beckham group falter in those talks or at the polls, Overtown could emerge as a backup site. Jorge Mas has said publicly the nine-acre Overtown site, including six acres the Beckham group has already purchased, is too small for the for-profit hotel, entertainment and office complex he wants next to the stadium.
At Tuesday's County Commission meeting, Gimenez said county lawyers planned to send the Beckham group a letter delaying the $901,500 payment until after the court system issues a "final determination" in the Matheson suit. The soccer group would then have the option of making the down payment or notifying the county it wanted to pull out of the deal .
Gimenez said the county determined the original 2017 deal gives the stadium group the ability to delay payments in the face of litigation. "I believe they have that right," Gimenez said of Beckham and partners.