A member of the family at the center of governing Miami-Dade’s Crandon Park wants to undo rules that in recent years have foiled plans from the Miami Open tennis tournament, Donald Trump and local sports leagues eager to expand onto the prime public park.
In a letter this week to Miami-Dade’s mayor, a lawyer for Christine Matheson said she wanted to explore lifting the 1993 restrictions secured by her family more than 20 years ago that gives a family-picked charity two of the four seats of a board governing the park. A cousin, Bruce Matheson, holds one of those seats and is seen as wielding veto power over growth at Crandon, including an effort by the future president in 2015 to take over the golf course there.
The lawyer, Jerry Breslin, said that while Christine Matheson does not have authority to execute a new agreement with the county she has been trying to round up support from more than two dozen family members for reopening talks.
“There were positive responses, negative responses, and some family members that have no interest and some she hasn’t heard from,” Breslin said. “It’s so preliminary that the only thing that various members of the family have indicated is they are willing to have a dialogue.”
Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Lindsay has proposed paying the Matheson family $20 million in exchange for the deal, and a draft agreement sent to Miami-Dade has the county paying an undetermined amount. A spokesman for county Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that kind of payment from Miami-Dade would be a non-starter, but that the mayor is eager to remove the park from Bruce Matheson’s outsized influence.
“While the proposal does seem to include some interesting elements, Mayor Gimenez and Miami-Dade County officials have environmental concerns and remain opposed to any County payments to the Matheson Family,” spokesman Michael Hernández said. “Mayor Gimenez’s ultimate goal is to return Crandon Park — one of the jewels of Miami-Dade County — to our residents and to end the control one individual, Bruce Matheson, has.”
Breslin said the Mathesons have not requested any money for the deal, and Lindsay said the payments were her idea. Gene Stearns, a Miami lawyer who represented the Miami Open in its legal challenge to the 1993 deal, said he first suggested the payment as a way to solve the decades-long logjam involving expansion at Crandon Park.
“I suggested it as a way to get the attention of Mathesons across the country,” Stearns said. “As a practical matter, I don’t think the county would pay a dime.”
Bruce Matheson said by phone on Wednesday that he was not aware of Christine’s letter to Gimenez expressing a willingness to re-open discussions on the 1993 agreement.
Asked if Christine, in concert with other family members, have the authority to proceed with these negotiations without his consent, Bruce Matheson said: “They can do what they want.”
The effort by Lindsay and Christine Matheson represents the latest effort to wrest Bruce Matheson from his perch of unusual control over the county-owned park.
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 nonprofit picked by the Matheson family, the National Parks Conservation Association, holds half of the seats and named Bruce Matheson to one of them.
Matheson has become a top foe of the tennis tournament, which sued him and Miami-Dade last year to have the committee declared illegal. That legal effort failed, sparking threats from the tournament that it would need to leave Miami without an expanded footprint.
In 2015, Gimenez was in talks with Trump and his resort organization about the real estate mogul taking over management of Crandon’s golf course. The future president pledged to spend $10 million upgrading the park in exchange for a management contract, but the deal would have required amending the park plan. The deal fizzled amid opposition from county commissioners.
“It would be great for Miami if everyone could come to an agreement and open up consideration of the Key Biscayne golf course as a venue for a PGA Tour or Champions Tour event,” said Andres Gaviria, director of business development for the PGA Tour and former general manager of the WGC Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral. “We lost a 55-year staple of South Florida sports when the Doral tournament left and I’d hate to see one of the best tennis tournaments in the world leave, too.
“We always hope to get the Super Bowl in South Florida, but these tournaments are like annual Super Bowls for our area. It would be wonderful for all residents if we could bring a major golf tournament back here. The magnificent Key Biscayne course isn’t an option now but it should be an option, and it would not be detrimental to the park or the environment.”
Lindsay, Key Biscayne’s mayor, said she sees the potential deal as a way to provide playing fields and other athletic spaces for residents of the island that is home to the county park. She said the $20 million “was a reasonable amount of money for activating parkland. I’m looking after children and individuals and families that would like to play sports on those fields.”
In a Wednesday letter to Gimenez, she wrote: “I am hopeful that with a new amendment process, the Village will be able to utilize at least a portion of the Park. This is essential to solve a dire shortage of recreational open space for Village residents.”
The effort seems sure to end up in court, given the history of litigation over the 1993 deal — which itself stemmed from a court settlement over construction of the tennis facility that currently houses the Miami Open. Bruce Matheson declined to get into the legal issues in his brief interview.
Asked if Christine or any family members have the authority to execute such an agreement over his objections, Bruce said: “You ought to talk to Christine. I have no further comment.”
Christine Matheson’s concern, Breslin said, “is the way the park is being administered. It’s extraordinarily restrictive and it’s being dictated by one member of the family [Bruce Matheson]. Christine and some members of the family are not comfortable with one family member having that much power to determine what can and cannot happen at the park.
“Make no mistake: Christine and all the family members are absolutely firm in their requirement that if there is to be any modifications to the existing administration of the park that it remains completely for public purposes.”
Miami Herald staff writers Linda Robertson and Michelle Kaufman contributed to this report.