The 13,300-seat stadium court is the centerpiece of the Tennis Center at Crandon Park facility, home of the Sony Open in Miami, Florida since 1987.
The 13,300-seat stadium court is the centerpiece of the Tennis Center at Crandon Park facility, home of the Sony Open in Miami, Florida since 1987. (Wikipedia)

The Third District Court of Appeal appeared receptive during oral arguments Monday to a Miami pioneer family’s effort to overturn a popular referendum on the future of Crandon Park in Key Biscayne.

Bruce Matheson, a descendant of the family that ceded the land for the 808-acre oceanfront park over 70 years ago, appealed the January dismissal of his lawsuit by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher. A November 2012 county referendum to upgrade the park’s tennis center was approved by a 72 percent vote.

Richard Ovelmen of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami argued the referendum was improper because it asked the public to let the county do something it was prohibited from doing by settlement agreement.

The Mathesons donated the sprawling parkland with deed restrictions limiting the land to passive family-oriented activities.

The county agreed in 1986 with tournament organizer International Players Championship Inc. to build a tennis facility and hold the annual Sony Ericsson Open, then the Lipton tournament. The Mathesons sued in 1988, and the litigation persisted until 1993 when the Mathesons and the county reached a settlement allowing one stadium and a series of ancillary tennis courts.

A final judgment in circuit court memorialized that agreement, Ovelmen said.

The expansion that the Mathesons oppose would develop a second stadium in the existing tennis footprint.

Third District Judge Linda Wells asked, “Is this ballot initiative somehow seeking to undo this declaration of restrictive covenant?”

Ovelmen responded, “The whole expansion is in violation of the settlement agreement.”

He also challenged the wording of the ballot and the resolution as fatally flawed because they did not inform the voters of key provisions of public concern.

The $50 million expansion was considered crucial to the future success of the Sony Open, according to IPC, which was represented at the hearing by Eugene Stearns of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson in Miami.

Stearns argued the ballot accomplished its chief purpose, which was to seek voter approval of a development plan.

Wells said one could argue the chief purpose of the vote was to change or nullify the binding settlement agreement “because none of this is going to happen without any of that.”

Stearns disagreed, noting a separate lawsuit brought by IPC will be heard in circuit court Wednesday. IPC sued the county, the Mathesons and the National Parks Conservation Association. The lawsuit contends the county granted the Mathesons undue control over Crandon Park.

Wells questioned IPC’s legal standing and the likelihood it might overturn the settlement agreement since IPC was not a party.

Referring to the park’s master plan, Wells corrected Stearns’ statement that a public referendum was necessary, in addition to votes by the County Commission and the park’s amendment committee. The plan said changes were subject to the approval the County Commission and the committee, she noted.

“It doesn’t say anything about the public,” Wells said.

Ovelmen alleged the referendum was a “bogus attempt” to give the impression of large public support.

“The whole idea was to tell just enough to make it sound good so they could roll up a big vote,” Ovelmen said.

Judge Kevin Emas asked if Ovelmen was suggesting that even if the amendment committee voted with the public, their wishes still could not be carried out.

“They cannot. The settlement agreement prohibits anything more than the one stadium,” Ovelmen said.

Emas added, “But the amendment committee together with the board of county commissioners can amend the master plan.”

Ovelmen said, “They can amend, but not in any way that conflicts with the terms of the settlement agreement.”

Assistant County Attorney Oren Rosenthal was cornered by the panel into admitting the expansion wouldn’t happen if the Matheson family didn’t approve, but he insisted the voters didn’t have to know that.

“Were the voters told, ‘If the Matheson family doesn’t approve it, it will not happen,’ ” Judge Ivan Fernandez asked.

Rosenthal said, “No, your honor.”