The Polo Wars

What happens when rich developers propose a luxury club be built on fragile Everglades wetlands? The horse manure hits the fan.

Finally, as part of the federal Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers must consent to wetlands destruction, a process that usually takes at least four months. "This is a large project that will probably be controversial," says Kelly Enright, project manager at the corps' Florida office in Jacksonville. "It might take longer."

La Primera's team insists they are up to the challenge. "We have staying power," engineer Swakon vows. "We are in for a couple of years. It's part of the price we are willing to pay."

Some environmentalists believe La Primera's polo club plans could be a ploy to increase the value of the land in anticipation of the federal or state government purchasing it for the buffer zone. In the past the Hassans have had luck selling their property to the feds. In 1987 Ala N.V., another subsidiary of La Primera, sold 80 acres of the tract at $16,000 per acre to the Corps of Engineers for a communications center. (Also adjacent to the property is the federal Krome detention center and the state Everglades Correctional Institution.) Ala had purchased the land eight years earlier for $4800 an acre. "At this time our program is to develop the polo club," Hassan stresses, though he admits La Primera might consider a government offer to buy. "The door is open," he says, "but it's just a little crack."

The development team insists their project will be environmentally friendly. They promise to provide a waste-containment system for the stables and to restore some wetlands on the site by clearing them of exotic vegetation like melaleuca. They argue that clustering the houses will make any environmental impact they have easier to mitigate. In addition the group will contribute $3.15 million to a wetlands restoration trust fund, as required by law. "It will be a two-year-long, serious dance in which we go back and forth trying to accommodate the needs of the public with the needs of the developer," predicts Swakon.

Environmentalists bristle at such talk. "The stakes are really high," says Everglades Coalition co-chairwoman Munson. "If they permit this, it would start a chain reaction that could lead to the collapse of the whole Everglades restoration agreement.

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