Should an abandoned and overgrown golf course be turned into a natural sanctuary for birds and bats, or a gated community? Do developers have the right to alter zoning regulations and build homes on park land if they have land where the demand for homes is high? Is it time to draw a line to save green spaces that are disappearing due to suburban sprawl in Miami-Dade?
A showdown over the fate of the former Calusa Country Club is on Wednesday’s agenda at County City Hall. The commissioners’ decision on whether to allow 550 single-family homes on 168 acres designated as parks and recreation land under the county’s master plan will have implications far beyond Kendall, say homeowners who have fought the project for years.
“We ask the county to avoid razing trees, filling in lakes and displacing wildlife on land that was never meant to be developed,” said Amanda Prieto, leader of the Save Calusa citizen activist group, which represents 2,300 homeowners. “You don’t have to degrade the character of a neighborhood. Zoning should not be determined by the highest bidder. This is not how the government should work ”.
Developer GL Homes argues that the best use of the land is residential, especially since county studies show that the supply of land for the construction of new single-family homes will be exhausted in 2025. The developer also says it could apply for permission to build 1,000 homes on the property, but reduced the number to 550, making it the lowest density of any golf course redevelopment in the county, including those in Fontainebleau, Doral and Williams Island.
High demand and low supply of single-family land
“We need to put single-family homes somewhere and here we have a vacant lot in the middle of a residential area,” said Dick Norwalk, executive vice president of GL Homes. “The opposition talks about the golf course as if it were a wild place. It is not a true wilderness, no matter how you want to paint it. And we are not taking away a beautiful public green space. It is private property and always has been. It was only accessible to the public if they paid to play golf. “
Norwalk said his company negotiated extensively with neighbors whose homes border the old golf course – the ring owners – to devise a work plan that is responsive to the surrounding community.
“The mentality that this is a zero-sum game is not productive. We have to build an attractive place to sell, ”he said. “We shouldn’t fight. We should work together to make improvements. ”
Calusa residents who do not own the ring were scheduled to demonstrate en masse Wednesday – they are chartering a bus to transport people downtown – and argue that the land classified as parks and recreation areas by the county convention and master plan they should keep their designation. After all, that’s why they bought there. They fear traffic will increase on already congested streets, property values will decline, schools will fill up and there will be flooding.
“Let’s put what I’ll call the Bacardi Rule into practice,” said attorney David Winker, who represents the non-ring owners, referring to Facundo Bacardi, the president of the rum empire who bought the property in 2003 and is now a co-owner. with GL Homes. “Let’s stop turning park and recreation grounds into subdivisions. Don’t touch our parks. We need green if we want to have sustainable places to live.
And let’s be clear. This is not affordable or working-class housing that Miami lacks. This is a luxury single-family home that throws its full impact on existing homeowners without any benefit to the community. “
A long struggle against urbanization
The owners’ dispute with Bacardi dates back a decade. Calusa’s original 1967 covenant required the property to remain a golf course for 99 years, unless 75% of the adjoining owners agreed to build it. Bacardi bought the country club for a bargain price of $ 2.7 million in 2003 – knowing that it was restricted by the agreement and classified as park and recreation – and soon after, golfers began to notice its deterioration. Following Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina in 2005, the damaged clubhouse was not repaired and was replaced with a trailer and portable toilets. The field closed in 2011 and was reclaimed by nature.
Bacardi offered the ring owners $ 50,000 each to renounce the agreement. They didn’t, so Bacardi sued them. The agreement was upheld in a court ruling in 2016, but Bacardi said the legal battle to invalidate it would continue, then paid the weary ring owners individual settlements of up to $ 300,000, neighbors said. Of 146 ring owners, 123 accepted the payments and signed waivers and nondisclosure agreements, fracturing the community. County commissioners released the agreement in October 2020, paving the way for new homes in the old field. GL Homes paid Bacardi $ 32 million for the property and he has a 35% stake in the development company.
The Calusa neighborhood stretches from Kendall Drive to Killian Parkway, between SW 127 Avenue and 137 Avenue.
Winker will tell commissioners that what happened in Calusa is an example of giving too much power to landlords and developers to manipulate zoning and make big profits.
“We cannot set a precedent where property owners turn into weapons against their neighbors when speculators buy them and use political force to turn parks into housing estates,” he said. “I have property rights, but I have no right to buy the house next door and turn it into a strip club because I can afford it.”
Doubts persist about the preservation of the environment
Winker and the homeowners he represents will oppose development on environmental grounds.
The discovery of the endangered Florida bonnet bat foraging for food on its nightly flights over ancient streets led to a study by Bat Conservation International, in which researchers recorded an average of 287 calls over 42 nights.
Homeowners asked the county to closely examine a bird colony on a once-a-water-trap lake island where egrets, anhingas, sandpipers and red-headed ducks thrive, and a threatened tricolor heron built a nest. .
Norwalk said the environmental consultants it hired found no signs of bats roosting on the property and only found a small colony of birds that requires further study during the nesting season. He promised to comply with the county Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) during the permitting phase for the development.
“If that island is to be preserved or cushioned, we will develop an action plan and do what the DERM tells us,” he said. “We are not minimizing the presence of the tricolor heron, but most of the birds are cattle herons in a lake that does not have much fish life because it is a habitat degraded by fertilizers and pesticides. We could make a better habitat ”.
Regarding criticism from homeowners that 577 trees will be removed and 13 acres of lakes filled in to make way for homes, Norwalk responded that GL Homes will plant 5,000 new trees and create 23 acres of new lakes.
Winker contends that the developer’s environmental impact studies were limited in scope.
“The studies are not complete and do not convey enough accurate information to commissioners for them to make informed decisions,” he said. “Get us the right reports now instead of lingering until it’s time to apply for permits.
“Once the zoning cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in.”
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Homeowners Fight New Development On Old Kendall Golf Course