Miami-Dade County

Court loss for Miami Open tennis tourney puts exit threats to the test

FILE--A view of the men's final match between Andy Murray, of Great Britain, and Novak Djokovic of Serbia, at Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne on Sunday, April 5, 2015. After a big loss on appeal, the Miami Open tennis tournament may be closing the door on staying in Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park.
FILE--A view of the men's final match between Andy Murray, of Great Britain, and Novak Djokovic of Serbia, at Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne on Sunday, April 5, 2015. After a big loss on appeal, the Miami Open tennis tournament may be closing the door on staying in Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park. El Nuevo Herald staff

After a big loss on appeal, the Miami Open tennis tournament may be closing the door on staying in Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park.

Amplifying a familiar warning, the for-profit tourney’s lawyer says an exit to another city is a virtual certainty on the heels of last week’s defeat before the Third District Court of Appeal. He said the only variable is how long it will take the Open to leave after losing its challenge to growth restrictions at the county-owned Crandon, home to the tourney that each spring draws some of the biggest stars in tennis and about 300,000 attendees.

“At some point, it’s going to be gone. The only question is when,” said Eugene Stearns, the Miami lawyer who represented the tournament in its losing effort to overturn the county rules and allow for the Miami Open to begin a $50 million expansion plan at Crandon.

Tournament owner International Players Championship Inc. has an eight-year commitment in its contract with Miami-Dade, but Stearns maintains that agreement is no longer valid because the county has failed to provide an updated home for the yearly event.

“I can’t predict whether the tournament is going to want to stick it out for the next eight years,” he said. “They’ll certainly have to consider their options. Under the circumstances, this has become a hostile environment to conduct business.”

Late last week, the Third DCA ruled against the Open with a single-sheet ruling affirming a lower court’s ruling that upheld the Crandon restrictions. That came on the heels of an oral argument where the appellate judges took the rare step of asking no questions of the lawyers — a sign that the judges weren’t that interested in exploring the dispute.

The opinion-free decision makes further appeal impossible, meaning the Open would have to convince the Third DCA to write a decision before it could even pursue relief in front of the Florida Supreme Court.

“I’m not going to hold my breath,” Stearns said.

At the heart of the dispute is Bruce Matheson, a descendant of the original family that owned Crandon. The land continues to be governed by restrictions tied to the 1940 donation of the property to the county. The Mathesons, at the time large land holders on Key Biscayne, required Miami-Dade to build a bridge to the island after accepting the 975 acres for Crandon, which was required to be operated only for “public park purposes.”

Other Mathesons sued to block creating a large stadium to serve the tennis tournament in the 1980s, and the litigation was settled in part by creating a four-person committee to approve any changes to the park’s master plan. A non-profit picked by the Matheson family, the National Parks Conservation Association, holds half of the seats and named Bruce Matheson to one of them.

From his post, Matheson has become a top foe of the tennis tournament, which sued him and Miami-Dade last year to have the committee declared illegal. In a written brief to the Third DCA, the tournament stated: “This appeal asks this Court to return control of Crandon Park to the people and their elected representatives.” Oren Rosenthal, an assistant county attorney handling the case, declined to comment.

Miami Open executives did not respond to interview requests this week, but the blunt comments from their lawyer follow a broader argument from the annual event: clear the way for it to create a new tennis complex or risk losing the pro tourney to another city.

Tournament officials have declined to tamp down speculation that a new tennis facility in Orlando would be a good alternative for the Open, and last month tourney chief Adam Barrett noted cities as far away as Dubai and Beijing would welcome the kind of pro tennis event that’s been held in Key Biscayne since the 1980s.

The Third DCA ruling could prompt the Open to act on its warnings about a departure. Or the finality of the legal fight could pressure tournament officials to negotiate a more modest expansion plan with Matheson and the NPCA.

“They already have the one stadium,” said Richard Ovelmen, Matheson’s lawyer. “They could ask the Amendment Committee to make improvements to it. But what they can’t do is add a bunch of stadiums or permanent structures.” In its brief to the Third DCA, Miami-Dade wrote that the tournament “abandoned” the process of trying to amend the master plan “in favor of this wasteful and unmeritorious litigation.”

The tournament, an arm of the IMG sports conglomerate, began building political pressure for the expansion in 2012, when it championed a countywide ballot question endorsing the $50 million plan to redo the main 14,000-seat tennis stadium at Crandon and create two other permanent stadiums where smaller courts now stand. The ballot item passed with 73 percent of the vote.

Miami Open pledged to pay for the construction, but the agreement with Miami-Dade also includes a 50-year extension on the tournament’s Crandon lease, as well as a new year-round management deal that has the tourney acting as the private operator of the public tennis courts.

The county deals calls for Miami-Dade to pay Miami Open $1.8 million a year in management fees, but the county expects to save about $850,000 a year by not having to dedicate staff to facility year-round., according to a 2013 summary. Miami Open would pay at least $1.5 million a year to host the tournament, and Miami-Dade would pay $14 million over 14 years in capital improvements for the facility.

Mayra Peña Lindsay, Key Biscayne’s mayor, said losing the tournament would definitely create a “void” in the affluent island village, where the pro tennis matches are a popular draw each year for locals. But she noted the original Matheson suit from the 1980s enjoyed support from Key Biscayne residents, and that the restrictions that came from that litigation made the current tournament’s traffic and other complications “bearable.”

“Bruce Matheson is very respected in terms of kind of being the watchdog and the person that keeps the park a park,” she said.

In an interview, Matheson said he wasn’t overly concerned about Key Biscayne losing the Open.

“The economic destiny of Miami-Dade County and Crandon Park does not depend on a two-week tennis tournament,” he said.

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