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Front Page » Business & Finance » New court volley over tennis center

New court volley over tennis center

Written by on July 4, 2013

Legal arguments are set to continue this month over a plan to upgrade facilities on Key Biscayne used for the annual Sony Open pro tennis tournament.

A July 17 hearing is scheduled before Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Marc Schumacher on a request by Bruce Matheson to strike from the case any arguments by the tournament’s promoters other than those that pertain to a November 2012 ballot referendum related to the upgrades.

Mr. Matheson is suing to block the upgrades at the county-owned Crandon Park Tennis Center, arguing the referendum was vague and misleading and thus the voters’ approval of the measure is not valid.

On other side, the tournament’s promoters, International Players Championship Inc., have sought to introduce a slew of historical arguments challenging the validity of a 1993 settlement agreement that regulated changes at Crandon Park and a master plan for the park developed from the agreement, which, among other things, set up the referendum requirement for certain changes at the park.

Not only is Mr. Matheson facing a challenge from the promoters, he also is facing a counter-lawsuit from the county, which placed the Crandon Park referendum on last fall’s ballot.

Judge Schumacher previously turned down a request by the county to dismiss Mr. Matheson’s suit, although the county’s lawsuit still stands and is pending.

In addition, Judge Schumacher dismissed a lawsuit by the promoters against Mr. Matheson, although the judge has allowed the promoters to intervene in the county’s lawsuit against Mr. Matheson.

“They keep harping that the settlement is null and void and the master plan is null and void and on and on,” Mr. Matheson said about the promoters.

Eugene Stearns, the lawyer for International Players Championship, said the promoters intend to continue pressing their case in court via the county’s lawsuit, and eventually may refile their own suit.

In the meantime, Mr. Stearns said, what was telling was that a three-member advisory committee overseeing Crandon Park, which includes Mr. Matheson, recently expressed its unanimous support for landscaping and a host of other changes that the promoters presented to the committee regarding the tennis center.

As a result, Mr. Stearns said, “why are we even having this argument” in court?

When asked about the committee’s position, Mr. Matheson said the committee only decided to consider enhanced landscaping around the tennis center and no other parts of what the promoters proposed, including changes to the park’s regulatory process.

“They’re attempting to rewrite the history of the tennis center,” Mr. Matheson said, “and modify and eliminate key parts of the settlement agreement and the master plan, all to the benefit of the tennis promoters.”

Since the 1980s, the promoters have made the annual Miami-Dade tournament into one of the tennis world’s premier events and they want to make $50 million improvements and additions to the tennis center.

Mr. Matheson’s family donated the land for Crandon Park in 1940, and he has fought through the years to gain oversight of the site for preservation. But the promoters have a longstanding lease with the county to use the tennis center and have maintained the facility needs upgrades to keep up with other top-tier tournaments — an issue addressed in the lease.

With cooperation from county officials, the promoters had a measure placed on last fall’s election ballot for the upgrades that passed by more than the required two-thirds majority. Mr. Matheson has argued the ballot measure was too vague and misleading to allow voters to make an educated choice.

“The referendum was not clear and didn’t divulge all of the important parts of the tennis center expansion,” he said.

Mr. Stearns said the upgraded tennis center would be open to the public for use other than when the tournament is held there.

Although the county so far has been vague about the financing method, the promoters have said money for the tennis center upgrades would be raised through the sale of county bonds, which would be fully repaid over a number of years with revenue from the tournament. Thus, they have argued the project would require no public funding — a point that Mr. Matheson has disputed.

Mr. Matheson said the ballot measure left out the important fact that, as proposed by the promoters, the improvements would be funded up front by county bond sales.

“It’s the public that pays for it,” he added.

Mr. Stearns, meanwhile, has described Mr. Matheson’s fight to block the tennis center upgrades as a egotistical bid to retain as much control as possible over the park.

Mr. Matheson said his motivation is to protect taxpayers from getting stuck with the cost of renovating a public facility for private interests, in addition to wanting to preserve the park’s “tranquility” in the face of increasing commercialization.