The aging golf course may not be world renown, but for residents in the Kendale Lakes suburb, the rolling green fairways and lakes remain a point of pride.
For decades, joggers have cut through the paths. Cyclists regularly loop around the horseshoe-shaped 27-hole course. Children still swim at the club’s Olympic-size pool.
“It’s the centerpiece of the whole community,” said longtime resident Ted Baldyga, 74.
Said another longtime, Aster Mohamed: “I really enjoy the scenery. It’s really a beautiful place in the center of a residential area.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But apprehension in this Kendall neighborhood is rising as the golf course’s owner, the Miccosukee Indian tribe, has yet again asked the federal government to make the property officially part of its sovereign nation. The effect: Miami-Dade County would lose complete control over the property, raising the specter that the tribe could replace golf with high-rise buildings — or another casino.
Miami-Dade County now has an ally: Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who last week penned a letter asking the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to deny the request. Her concern: The tribe, which has been notoriously uncooperative with state authorities, would suddenly assume increased policing powers over the 230 acres in the heart of Kendall.
“Regrettably, the Tribe has created an atmosphere in which the state agencies have a reasonable and demonstrable concern about the tribe’s failure of cooperation in criminal investigations,” Fernandez Rundle wrote Johanna Blackhair, Bureau of Indian Affairs eastern regional office director.
“We are deeply concerned over the tribe’s desire to have new areas within Miami-Dade County... our obligation to the welfare of the public requires that we oppose the tribe’s present application.”
The letter is the latest salvo in a legal skirmish that has stretched over a decade. The tribe purchased the golf course in 2001 and within two years asked the federal government to designate it part of the reservation.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012 finally agreed to make the golf course part of the reservation — a decision that blindsided residents and county authorities.
But two federal administrative judges later overturned the decision. The tribe in January renewed its request.
The Miccosukees’ federally designated reservation lies over 25 miles west of Kendale Lakes, off Tamiami Trail in rural West Miami-Dade. The tribe owns and operates a lucrative resort and casino off Krome Avenue.
Tribal authorities have long had a thorny relationship with local, state and federal authorities.
The feds are still investigating the finances of former tribal chairman Billy Cypress, and the tribe continues to battle the Internal Revenue Service over financial records relating to its gambling proceeds. So far, the IRS has placed $170 million in tax liens on the tribe for back taxes, interest and penalties.
Neither the tribe’s lawyer, nor chairman Colley Billie, responded to request for comment about the golf course. In 2012, Billie issued a statement to the Miami Herald: “Placing the Miccosukee Golf Course in trust for the Tribe will continue to benefit all South Floridians by generating more family-style recreation as well as much-needed jobs and other forms of economic development for our communities.”
That’s an argument Miami-Dade County finds nonsensical.
In a 32-page document submitted to the Bureau of Indian ffairs last month, the county said that the golf course bleeds over half-a-million dollars a year, having “never been profitable.”
“In fact, the golf course appears to be a drain on the tribe’s assets,” Assistant County Attorney Ileana Cruz wrote. She pointed out the casino operation already nets the 650 tribal members plenty of money. “The tribe is economically self-sufficient,” Cruz wrote.
The golf course was built in the early 1970s as the heart of the planned community. Residents even had to buy a membership to live in the neighborhood.
At the time, officials put into place a 99-year zoning restriction that requires the property remain a golf course. Under the restriction, only the county commission and three-quarters of the neighbors could approve a change.
For Miami-Dade, losing control of the property would cause a host of municipal headaches. The course is crucial for draining storm water for some nearby homes. The property’s lakes are also linked to the county’s canal system, which helps prevent flooding.
And any potential development on the golf course would not be required to follow compatibility regulations, or meet standards for new roads, schools, green space and other improvements the county imposes on new construction. The Miccosukees would also not have to pay over $65,000 in property taxes.
For its part, the tribe has always insisted the property would remain a golf course. But since 2003, Miami-Dade County has feared the tribe would backtrack and convert the land into a gaming center.
“Nobody has any objection if they keep the property the way it is, as it’s been operating.” said Mohamed, 70, the Kendale Lakes activist who is mounting another petition drive opposing the tribe’s request. “They purchased it. However, if it turns into tribal trust land, they have to the right to build anything on the property.”
Prosecutors and police say squabbles with the tribe — and its oft-troubled police department — would only increase.
The tribe’s state-certified police agency frequently applies state law to arrest non-tribal members near the reservation, yet refers tribe members who are charged to their private tribal court, which is closed to non-Indians.
In her letter, Fernandez Rundle noted the controversy over the police tribal department’s handling of a January 2009 auto wreck on Tamiami Trial involving tribe members and a Kendall woman who died. Citing the tribe’s sovereign status, the department at first refused to turn over to prosecutors reports and photos from the crash scene, even though the crash happened on a state road well away from the tribe’s federally protected reservation.
“We remain unable to rely upon the cooperation of the tribe when tribe members are involved in criminal activities, and when the Miccosukee Police Department is the investigating agency,” Fernandez Rundle wrote. In 2013, Fernandez-Rundle also criticized the tribe for employing private security guards to conduct unlawful traffic stops of motorists along a state road.
Miami-Dade police officers currently patrol the Kendale Lakes neighborhood.
The county attorney’s office pointed out that adding Miccosukee cops — who have had “historical clashes” with Miami-Dade police — would only add to the confusion. What if a burglar runs from a Kendale Lakes home onto the golf course? county attorney Cruz asked.
“Which government has the authorities to prosecute or take a person into custody?” she wrote. “If the trust acquisition goes forward, the checkerboarding and jurisdictional conflicts will only get worse.”