His Own Private Paradise

Bruce Matheson doesn't need you or anyone else to tell him what's wrong with his family's legacy, Crandon Park. So just step aside, thank you.

As fences go, this one, when it's completed, will be impressive by any measure: eight feet tall, heavy-duty chainlink with posts securely cemented into the ground, topped with barbed wire, and nearly a mile and a half long. More significant than its length will be the fact that it will enclose a large portion of one of Dade County's most beloved public spaces: Crandon Park on Key Biscayne.

And that menacing barbed wire? It's angled out from the park's interior, designed to send an unambiguous message to those who approach it: Keep out.

Inside the fence, where hikers and bicyclists roamed freely for years, where sunbathers followed jungle trails to isolated beaches and fishermen tried their luck near Bear Cut bridge A inside the fence there will be no free-roaming activity of any sort, at least not by humans. For the most part, there will be no access whatsoever, and that which will be allowed is expected to be tightly regulated and constantly supervised.

The fence is but the most visible of many dramatic changes scheduled for Crandon Park, the county's largest public sanctuary. Bear Cut Preserve, the 133-acre area in the process of being fenced, is already evolving rapidly. Running south along Crandon Boulevard and east to the ocean, much of it is being returned to its former incarnation as a mangrove swamp. It's being lowered in elevation, inundated by tidal wash from newly cut channels, and planted with thousands of mangrove seedlings. This sort of ecological rehabilitation is expensive, and the county intends to protect its investment by blocking the easy access that's been available for nearly 50 years.

Outside the fenced area, the boulevard is going to be landscaped with myriad coconut palms and lush vegetation, as are picnic areas and the beach. In addition, the old carousel and beachfront cabanas at the southern end of the park will be restored. The children's petting zoo, a favorite of years gone by, is also scheduled to return. More picnic tables will appear throughout the park.

If that's the easy part, here's where it gets tough: Park planners have scrapped a proposal, approved by the Dade County Commission in 1991, to expand the Center for Environmental Education (CEE), a 25-year-old public schools program housed at Crandon that caters to inner-city children. The park's two softball fields will be dismantled and transformed into open meadows. The tennis courts, children's playground, and the recreation center at Calusa Park, across the boulevard, will be razed and replaced by another open meadow. (Calusa Park is a misnomer as it exists entirely within the boundaries of Crandon Park.) The historic Calusa Playhouse will be moved to the old zoo (now known as the Gardens at Crandon Park) and converted to a teaching facility. The former zoo's ambitiously planned transformation to a unique center for art and nature has also been tossed out. At Sundays on the Bay, the popular waterfront restaurant and bar, after its lease expires in four years, there'll be no more liquor without food, no more live music after dusk, and no dance floor to tempt those who feel the rhythm.

Most of these sweeping changes and many others unfolding today and proposed for the future are a testament to the single-mindedness of one of Miami's most venerable families -- the Mathesons -- whose success in bargaining with Dade County officials over the fate of Crandon Park is also a testament to the county's desperate desire to avoid spending more time and money on legal battles.

Those battles began eight years ago when the Matheson family sued the county in an attempt to block development of a permanent stadium to accommodate the Lipton tennis tournament. The result has been a negotiated settlement that includes the creation of a complex and detailed master plan for the park, and a tremendous amount of power over that plan for Bruce Matheson, devoted guardian of his family's treasured gift to the people of Dade County -- the nearly 1000 acres of land now known as Crandon Park.

A comprehensive master plan expected to guide the park's development for generations to come was delivered three years ago. Since then Bruce Matheson, on behalf of his family, has raised scores of "objections" to it and has been able to modify it in ways so significant -- some say so radical -- that he has made adversaries of the very people who, just a short while ago, considered him a hero.

Theodora Long, executive director of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, which provides support to the CEE, says Matheson is petulant, dictating his own agenda and ignoring the needs of county residents: "They [county officials] have carte blanche around the tennis stadium, and the Mathesons have a noose around your neck for the rest of the park."

Valerie Cassidy, who has volunteered at the Gardens at Crandon Park since 1988, complains that Matheson's personal vision for the old zoo contradicts a special plan that was painstakingly developed and then approved by county commissioners. Metro-Dade bureaucrats, she asserts, have simply caved in to his demands. "We're just concerned that the master plan that had public input is being discarded," she says. "What's the point of doing all this for all these years, getting money and having it donated? They want you for a while, but when you don't fit into their plans, they just get rid of you."

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