Key Biscayne

Ruling imperils Key Biscayne tennis center expansion

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to end what critics say is the Matheson family’s veto power over changes to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, in effect imperiling the $50million tennis center expansion overwhelmingly approved by Miami-Dade voters in 2012.

The ruling Wednesday by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher, in a suit filed by the operators of the long-running pro tournament at the park’s tennis center, is almost certain to be appealed. If it stands, however, it would re-affirm the legality of an unusual 1993 settlement agreement that strictly limits how the park can be used.

That agreement, between Miami-Dade County and the Mathesons — who deeded the park land to the public but retained a say-so in its use and had sued to block construction of the tennis center — allowed the facility’s development to proceed while limiting its scope.

The settlement also placed final decisions on even minor alterations to Crandon Park in the hands of a four-member committee that has blocked numerous changes sought by the county in recent years. Committee decisions cannot be appealed.

Critics of the committee, including representatives of the tennis center, contend the Mathesons control two of its votes, enough to block any measure. Bruce Matheson, the family heir charged with enforcing the family’s say in park matters, sits on the committee. He has sued separately to invalidate the results of the tennis center referendum.

A second member is appointed by a nonprofit group to which Matheson has been a significant donor.

Matheson, who said Thursday he was “very pleased” by the decision, said he holds no special sway on the committee. He said it’s just a matter of hewing to the settlement and a companion master plan for the park, which lay out in detail what’s allowed at the tennis center.

Matheson said the expansion plan, which among other upgrades calls for construction of three permanent grandstands outside the main stadium, violates the settlement agreement and the master plan, which allow only one such facility.

“The settlement agreement says that there will be one stadium and one stadium only. And so does the master plan,” Matheson said. “Any amendment to the master plan has to be consistent with the settlement agreement. They’re allowed one stadium. To build three more would be completely contrary to the settlement. I think it’s self-evident.”

International Players Championship, which runs the tournament known until this year as the Sony Open, unsuccessfully argued in its suit that the settlement and the committee are illegal because they take decisions over public land away from the public and the Miami-Dade Commission.

But Schumacher ruled the settlement is a legal contract that does not involve the commission’s legislative authority. He also ruled too much time had passed since adoption of the agreement to undo it.

Reaction to Schumacher’s ruling by officials at the tournament, now known as the Miami Open, was curt.

“We are disappointed with the decision,” said tournament director Adam Barrett in a statement. “The Miami Open is carefully evaluating all of its options.”

Barrett and other IPC officials have said in the past that the tournament would be unlikely to stay in Key Biscayne long-term without the expansion and upgrades, which they contend are essential to compete with increasingly lavish facilites at top-tier pro tennis venues around the world.

In a story that ran during this year’s tournament, the New York Times compared the tennis center, a relatively threadbare facility that requires tents and temporary stands to accommodate fans, to “an annual county fair in a world of increasingly upscale tennis theme parks.”

Under the plan approved by voters, the tournament would finance all the improvements and take over management of the tennis center, which would remain fully accessible to the public outside of tournament time.

County commissioners endorsed the plan after concluding it would significantly improve the center and help retain the annual competition, one of the top events on the pro tour, while saving the parks department $850,000 a year in management costs. Organizers say it draws more than 300,000 people a year.

The legal tussle over the expansion plan, only the latest in a series of lawsuits between the Mathesons and Miami-Dade officials over Crandon Park, has put the county in an awkward position.

The county attorney’s office teamed up with the tennis tournament’s attorney, Eugene Stearns, to oppose Matheson’s suit to invalidate the November 2012 referendum, in which 73 percent of voters supported the expansion plan. Schumacher dismissed Matheson’s suit. Matheson has appealed.

But assistant county attorney Oren Rosenthal backed Matheson in the IPC suit in order to preserve the settlement, even though the result could be that the expansion is blocked.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who backed the expansion plan, was in the final day of budget hearings Thursday and did not respond to a request for comment relayed through a spokesman.

If the Crandon committee blocks the expansion, it would effectively make the referendum results moot. In trying to invalidate the results, Matheson’s lawyers have argued that the referendum carried no legal weight because the settlement agreement is the ultimate determinant of what happens at the park. They also contend that voters should have been told that the park master plan bars construction of additional grandstands at the tennis center.

But Stearns and other critics of the settlement have said the process was rigged to favor the Mathesons from the start, and that the county improperly gave up its right over decisions affecting public land at Crandon in agreeing to it.

The settlement gave the right to appoint two committee members to the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that supports the U.S. park system.

Since the committee’s inception, the group has appointed Bruce Matheson, a significant donor, to one seat. It’s named other organization officials to its second seat, which is now occupied by an employee, John Adornato.

The committee has met twice this year without making a decision on the expansion plan. But observers familiar with the committee’s decisions, including tournament representatives, have said they believe it’s likely to vote against the expansion.

Adornato has appeared deeply skeptical of arguments justifying the need for the upgrades by county parks and tournament officials. Two members, Miami Foundation president Javier Soto and Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, have been circumspect.

County parks officials had asked the committee earlier this year to delay a final decision while it prepared responses to questions by Adornato and other members. Subsequent committee meetings have been cancelled. No new date has been set for a meeting, parks director Jack Kardys said Thursday.