Miami-Dade County

As Miami reopens Melreese, critics wonder if soil tests were ploy in Beckham stadium talks

Miami administrators reopened the Melreese golf course Friday after a consultant reviewed the results of environmental tests ordered by the potential developers of a $1 billion mall and Major League Soccer stadium complex.

The partners behind David Beckham’s effort to field an MLS team in Miami commissioned an environmental report while they negotiated a no-bid 99-year lease of the city-owned golf course, which could be redeveloped into a 131-acre complex called Miami Freedom Park. The test results, released Monday, showed arsenic contamination in the golf course’s soil, pollution that was largely known to the city and public due to the land’s history as the former site of an incinerator ash dump.

The report was described as showing more contamination than expected, according to elected officials briefed on the matter earlier this week. Yet county environmental regulators saw no cause for such concern. The director of Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) told the Miami Herald on Tuesday there was nothing “earth shattering” in the Beckham group’s report. Another attorney specializing in environmental law said the arsenic levels were common for a golf course.

On Tuesday, City Manager Emilio Gonzalez closed Melreese “in an abundance of caution” pending further review of the soil data by a separate firm. On Friday, environmental firm SCS Engineers gave the all-clear in a report that confirmed what other experts have said — the arsenic levels at Melreese are consistent with contamination found at other golf courses throughout the country “and are indicative of the application of arsenical pesticides.”

SCS is familiar with Melreese’s conditions — the firm authored a remediation plan for the site in 2004 and has conducted regular monitoring in the years since.

“With respect to the buried solid waste and the associated chemicals of concern, it is SCS’ opinion that the existing institutional and engineering controls provide adequate protection for continued golf course use and that it can be re-opened,” reads the SCS report.

Friday afternoon, Gonzalez issued a statement saying the city had notified DERM of its decision.

“The Melreese Country Club and Golf Course will reopen based on the findings of an independent firm concluding that conditions on the golf course are comparable to other golf courses,” Gonzalez said.

In November, 60 percent of voters endorsed the broad outline of a deal, voting to allow the city to skip its normal bidding process and negotiate a deal to lease public land exclusively with the group behind Inter Miami, Beckham’s upcoming MLS team.

Beckham’s local partner, MasTec chairman Jorge Mas, has led the effort to reach an agreement with the city. Miami Freedom Park — an office park, hotel, shopping center and 58-acre public park next to a 25,000-seat stadium — would serve as the venue for Inter Miami’s home games.

The environmental findings from Miami Freedom Park’s consultant, EE&G, were shared with Mayor Francis Suarez and commissioners earlier this week as attorneys representing the city and Miami Freedom Park continue talks over the terms of the lease.

The city’s response to the soil tests drew criticism because of the timing — one commissioner suspected the Beckham group might use the contamination issue to push the city to make concessions during lease negotiations.

“I’m very concerned about both things,” said Commissioner Manolo Reyes, a staunch opponent of the Miami Freedom Park plan. “I’m concerned if there’s an increase in contamination, or if this is going to be used an excuse.”

Miami Freedom Park officials rebuffed the suggestion this week, maintaining that they simply did what they had agreed to do: to order an environmental study and deliver the results to the city.

Some of the concern is rooted in a section of the proposed lease the team sent the city at the beginning of the summer. A footnote in the document links the actual cost of environmental remediation to the valuation of the land, which would determine the rent owed to the city under the lease.

Sources familiar with talks between the city and the Miami Freedom Park team tell the Herald that this line is currently a point of contention in negotiations. Before the city can order new appraisals of the land, the parties must agree on the parameters of those appraisals — whether or not cost of remediation should be a factor.

“ ... the Fair Market Value will be based on the highest and best use of the Demised Property, taking into consideration the actual cost of the environmental remediation for the Demised Property ... “ reads the footnote, under a section discussing how the rent payments will be determined.

Without much progress in negotiations, it appears unlikely the city will meet a commission-imposed deadline to consider a lease in September. That leaves a small window of time before this year’s municipal election in November, when voters will elect a new representative in Miami’s District 1 — the zone that includes Melreese. The district’s current commissioner, Wifredo “Willy” Gort, opposes the project. Opposition from Reyes and Gort would stymie or kill the deal — the Beckham group needs four of five commission votes to approve a lease.

SCS’ report also addressed another set of tests that DERM conducted this summer. The county agency found “hot spots” with lead contamination at levels exceeding legal limits and debris at a shallow depth, such as fragments of metal, tile and glass. DERM notified the city of the issue in a letter dated July 15.

It turns out Miami administrators knew how much it would cost to clean up those hot spots. On July 30, three weeks before the Beckham group’s consultant released its analysis, Miami’s capital improvement department estimated the cost of the cleanup of the hot spots: $122,662.66.

Public records obtained by the Herald revealed the price tag, a relative pittance compared to the city’s billion-dollar budget and the tens of millions that it could cost to remediate the whole golf course.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that the city responded to DERM, sending a letter saying administrators were “moving forward to investigate and remediate these four sites” when the city received the analysis from Miami Freedom Park’s consultant, triggering the decision to close the course and seek a third-party review.

Friday’s report from SCS notes that the arsenic near the surface of the soil is from chemicals used to maintain the turf, a typical issue with golf courses. The report also states that one testing site for arsenic showed levels above legal limits and might require additional testing, as well as the need for more testing for methane at the clubhouse to ensure it is not accumulating in the building.

SCS also reported that EE&G used a method of soil testing that could have produced less accurate results. Overall, the firm said that the golf course was safe for use with fencing around the few contaminated areas DERM identified.

Commissioner Gort said he understood the city administration’s caution but was disappointed with the decision to completely close the site. He went to Melreese on Friday afternoon to talk with workers from the course’s operator, a company owned by Charles Delucca III.

“I can tell you they’ve lost quite a few dollars,” he said. “They lost two tournaments and the kitchen closed.”

Read the SCS Engineers report below.

Herald staff writer Adriana Brasileiro contributed to this report.
Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.