In government as in tennis, play by rules on Key Biscayne
Written by Michael Lewis on October 30, 2013
Two decades ago this newspaper backed a permanent Crandon Park tennis stadium for what is now the Sony Open. Global TV and upscale visitors, we said, outweighed loss of park for two weeks, and the other 50 weeks the public would use the new courts.
Key Biscayne neighbors were livid. Anonymous callers told us the traffic would kill village life and promoters would keep grabbing more until the park became a commercial carnival.
Those visitors meant nothing to foes on the Key, though tournament head Butch Buchholz said a stadium to replace his temporary bleachers would help keep the Lipton (now Sony) and lure the Davis Cup, the women’s Federation Cup and the NCAA championship.
“They don’t attract a lot of people,” pooh-poohed the Key Biscayne Council’s lawyer, who was in court to block further tennis incursion.
“The county needs to live up to its own master plan,” the lawyer said “The violations here relate primarily to traffic.”
The lawyer also cited environmental damage by the county with a permanent facility: “They have an insatiable desire to generate revenue from the land – which is an area environmentally important.”
Miami Today took the other side: the site had been a mini-dump, traffic wouldn’t alter islanders’ lives and promoters would live up to the no-commercialization deal.
Fast forward: today, International Players Championship Inc. seeks major tennis center expansion to add retail, a food court, a television studio building and offices, a clock tower, far more courts and seating for the tournament while eliminating grass and clay courts that lure residents and pros the other 50 weeks of the year.
County commissioners are soon to hear expansion construction plans, proposals to change or invalidate the park’s master plan and contracts that reportedly would give promoters more control of the park, much as the Miami Marlins totally control a county-owned stadium.
While members of the Matheson family, which gave Crandon Park to the county in 1940 with a pledge of permanent use as a park, are again in court to block the Sony’s incursion, promoters have their legal team at work too.
They argue that the county has failed in obligations to provide a world-class facility, that the park master plan is invalid, that oversight by the team that the county and tournament agreed to when the stadium was built is illegal and that voters last year backed their plan anyhow.
But voters got no details. They had no idea expansion would allow promoters to rip out the clay and grass courts and vastly expand commercial structures.
Persuasive is a post Friday by Susan Krupnick Gregorie on the MiamiToday
News.com web site pointing out that those grass and clay courts attract players broadly, that Serena and Venus Williams drove to them from Palm Beach Gardens daily the year Serena first won a Wimbledon title, and that seniors use the courts extensively.
Also persuasive today are the 1991 arguments listed above by the Key’s attorney, Eugene Stearns, in opposing the center’s growth. Less persuasive today are the arguments of an attorney for the promoters, also Eugene Stearns, that deny what he said then.
He’s not the only one shifting sides. While Miami Today still believes in the Sony, we also believe in honoring the spirit of the 1990s agreements by the county, the tournament and center opponents that created a four-member panel to oversee Crandon Park, including the tennis center, and to enforce the Crandon Park Master Plan.
Sony promoters now argue that the agreement, park oversight, the panel and the master plan are all invalid. We can’t see how they can prevail in court if the county enforces the rights of its residents as promoters try to overturn everything they agreed to back when it was convenient.
The Marlins will never fight like that, because the county gave away all control of the ballpark. But in tennis the county does have controls and it should use them, not yield.
Note that the Third District Court of Appeal in 1990 ruled that Matheson heirs had the right to require the tennis site to be used for “public park purposes only.” After the county acts, the Mathesons’ current court case against expansion is to resume, so commission action won’t be final.
The promoters say if they don’t win the Sony will leave. Back in the 1990s, Mr. Buchholz threatened that not only would it exit Key Biscayne but Florida and maybe the US, because Europe wanted the tournament. Marlins owners threatened a pullout until we gave them a $3 billion stadium to leave empty.
We have little sympathy with those who threaten, whether the alleged loss is baseball or tennis or Super Bowls.
Let there be no doubt of this tournament’s value, one not diminished by suits and countersuits – the county is being sued also. The Sony is very much worth retaining, with far more value than just the free tickets organizers give to county hall – or the funds they paid the county this year in lieu of freebies. We point to TV and visitor values, both of which have grown.
Nonetheless, the county must not renege on agreements to safeguard the park’s master plan rather than water it down and to abide by rulings of the Crandon Park Advisory Committee. A deal is a deal, even when it’s inconvenient.
If county hall cuts a deal with promoters on the scope of expansion, the advisory board should still rule whether the plan is suitable.
That advisory board is the last bastion to protect public and environment. While voters last year OK’d in principle a promoter-funded tennis center upgrade, the advisory board still must give a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The tournament is an amenity – but more vital are public parkland and public trust that agreements once made will not be abrogated if they ever become inconvenient.
In life as in tennis, stick to the rules. The advisory board in this case is the umpire. Don’t dump the ump.