Charging misuse of Key Biscayne park, donor's heirs sue county to get land back

February 17, 1991|By Orlando Sentinel

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- When the pioneer Matheson family gave Dade County half of this tropical island 50 years ago, it set one condition: The 900 acres stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean had to remain a public park forever.

Now the family wants a chunk of the park back and filed suit recently to take it.

The Mathesons insist that the county broke its promise by inviting the Lipton International Players Championships to make its home there and by agreeing to build a $16.5 million stadium for the tennis tournament by 1993.

Whether family members succeed in reclaiming about 360 acres of Crandon Park will determine the future of a unique mangrove reef as well as one of the country's most prestigious tennis events.

But to Bruce Matheson, great-grandson of the wealthy chemist-turned-coconut farmer who settled Key Biscayne at the turn of the century, there's an even bigger issue at stake, an issue so important that he has become a full-time spokesman for the 91 Matheson heirs.

"If we don't force the county to adhere to the deed restrictions, it will set a national precedent that counties and municipalities can use gifts any way they want," the former Texas businessman said while sitting at a picnic table in the coconut palm-lined park. "The result will be that no other person will give one acre of land anywhere."

Mr. Matheson pointed out a plaque erected by the county in 1947, thanking his great-aunt, great-uncle and grandfather for donating the northern 2 miles of Key Biscayne for "use in perpetuity as a public park."

His voice grew angry when he said his relatives never dreamed that the county would close a piece of the park and restrict access to the beach for a tennis tournament once a year.

"This is a gross misuse of a gift by Dade County, which benefits private individuals for private profit," he said. "They're doing it for one reason: pure greed."

County officials see it differently. They say the Lipton benefits the public enormously: In exchange for a 10-day, $2.5 million tournament that annually pumps $102 million into the economy, residents are getting a world-class tennis center to enjoy the rest of the year. There also is an incalculable benefit to this image-conscious community, they say.

"It's a major TV event telecast worldwide," County Attorney Bob Ginsburg said. "For more than a week every year, beautiful pictures of downtown and Key Biscayne are flashed all over the world. Where can you buy that kind of publicity?"

The Mathesons are not alone in their objections to the Lipton. Many of the 11,000 residents on the unincorporated island, once the site of President Richard M. Nixon's winter White House, believe the tournament is an ominous sign for the future of the park.

They made their frustration with county government well-known in November by voting to incorporate the Key, which is linked to Miami by the 4-mile-long Rickenbacker Causeway. The Lipton wasn't the only reason for the vote, but all agree it contributed to the discontent.

"The Lipton has done more to create friction on this island than anything I can think of," Key Biscayne Council member Helen White said. "It's like a war going on here."

The war began with a bulldozer in October 1987. Residents didn't take much notice of the first Lipton tournament, held a few months earlier in a temporary stadium in Crandon Park. But they did notice when county workers flattened nearly 2 acres of gumbo limbo, seagrape and cocoplum trees so fans attending future Liptons could walk across a $1.28 million pedestrian tunnel into the tennis center.

The county shelved the walkway plan, but, Ms. White said, it gave Key residents their first clue that the county had bigger ideas for the tennis center, including a mammoth clubhouse and the stadium.

With Ms. White heading the list, a group of Key Biscayne residents filed suit in 1988 to halt construction and tournament play in Crandon Park.

Last year, when the 3rd District Court of Appeal agreed that the tournament violated the "public park purposes only" restriction that the Mathesons wrote into the Crandon Park deed a half-century earlier, there was jubilation on the Key.

But the court, though it said the tournament violated the deed by closing the tennis complex to the public for weeks and restricting access to beach parking, also found that the tournament served a public purpose by bringing in tourism. Seizing that language, the county made operational changes to increase public access to the park during the tournament and, in September, approved a resort-tax increase to build the 7,500-seat stadium.

A month later, when the Matheson heirs exercised the "reverter clause" in the deed, demanding that the county return the property, the county ignored the request. "We'll continue on," County Manager Joaquin Avino said at the time. "We feel we are legally correct."

But Dan Paul, the Mathesons' attorney, believes the county is missing a major point that will leave taxpayers with a $16.5 million boondoggle. He contends that, no matter what the county does to correct the deed violation, the violation occurred, giving the Mathesons the undisputed right to reclaim their land.

"The county could boot the Lipton off Key Biscayne tomorrow and say, 'Never come back,' and the Mathesons would still have the right to reclaim the land," Mr. Paul said. "No matter what the county does in the future, they cannot rectify the past."

The Mathesons say that, should Mr. Paul's position prevail, they plan to rededicate the property -- conservatively valued at $1 million an acre -- to a non-profit organization that would take better care of it. As for the tennis complex, Mr. Matheson said, "We would tear it down."

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