Miami-Dade County

Advocate sues county over voter-approved FIU expansion onto youth fairgrounds

Michelle Varela, left, and Jennifer Ravelo ride the Blizzard at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition in March.
Michelle Varela, left, and Jennifer Ravelo ride the Blizzard at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition in March. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A parks advocate has sued Miami-Dade over a referendum voters approved last month that would let Florida International University build on county fairgrounds — an already contentious plan that could now get more complicated.

Bruce Matheson, who has taken on county government in the past and won, filed a complaint last week asking a judge to invalidate the results of the FIU referendum, and for another voter-approved measure allowing libraries to go in existing park buildings. He argues both Nov. 4 ballot questions did not fully disclose to voters the “material terms” of the proposals.

“This case is about transparency in government,” Matheson said Monday in a statement provided by his attorney, Enrique Arana. “If the County is going to ask the voters to pass on ballot questions, they need to be forthright about the actual issues and costs at stake.”

Sixty-five percent of voters approved each question, as well as two others related to parks.

The county attorney’s office declined to comment. Miami-Dade had yet to be formally served with the lawsuit as of Monday afternoon. Matheson’s lawyers filed it Thursday.

“The voters have spoken,” said County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who championed the referendum for FIU, which is in his district. “This is just a delay tactic, trying to muddy up the waters. It’s just terribly unfair to the community.”

Though not a lawyer, Zapata also questioned whether Matheson would even have enough legal basis, known as standing, to bring suit against the county. “Anything that parks is involved with, he somehow wants to interfere with,” Zapata said.

At issue is a provision in the county charter — essentially Miami-Dade’s constitution — that restricts development on public parks. The provision, known as Save Our Parks, was adopted by voters in 1993.

Save Our Parks permits certain structures at unique parks, such as Zoo Miami and Tamiami Park, which is home to the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition. But it still requires voters’ OK for new buildings, which is why proponents of FIU’s expansion pushed for last month’s referendum. The university wants to expand onto the 64 acres of Tamiami Park now leased to the fair.

Matheson believes parks should remain natural and pristine. He is an heir to the pioneer family that deeded Crandon Park on Key Biscayne to the county — and later sued to block construction of a tennis center there. The tennis stadium ultimately went up, but Matheson succeeded in limiting its scope and protecting the park from further building.

In his lawsuit, Matheson contends that the referendum misled voters by making them think they were voting to approve a project — when, according to Matheson, they were essentially voting to give up their power to veto any specific FIU building plans.

Because the ballot question did not detail exactly what FIU proposes to construct, voters did not get a chance to exercise the authority granted to them in the county charter to accept or reject particular construction, according to the lawsuit. Voters had a say only in a general expansion proposal. FIU has a $900 million plan for the site, including new housing, parking, and research and academic facilities.

County ballot questions must be limited to 75 words or fewer, which makes it difficult to extensively explain any given issue.

Matheson also claims the ballot language failed to fully explain that FIU won’t be able to expand unless Miami-Dade finds a new home for the youth fair, gives fair operators three years’ notice and pays relocation costs. The referendum said no county funds would be used because FIU has committed to securing outside money for the effort — including state dollars, which Matheson notes also come from county taxpayers. The fair doesn’t want to move.

A county plan estimates the relocation could cost up to $230 million. The Florida Legislature has set aside $10 million for the project so far.

“The voters were simply not provided the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether to exempt FIU’s proposed use of Tamiami Park from the protections of Article 7,” the lawsuit says.

Matheson makes similar arguments for the second ballot question he’s challenging — the one that would allow libraries in parks.

In addition, he argues that the ballot question should have mentioned that Save Our Parks sets a higher threshold — approval from two-thirds of voters, and not just a simple majority — to build on environmentally sensitive parks, such as Crandon, Matheson Hammock and the Deering Estate. By not mentioning it, the county violated the charter and “may not lawfully allow library uses” in those parks, according to the lawsuit.

And, Matheson says, the referendum should have noted that Save Our Parks does not apply in several municipalities, including Miami, Coral Gables and Hialeah.

The referendum, the lawsuit says “amounted to nothing more than a sham, nullity, or straw vote in their own communities.”