The Polo Wars

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

Fasten your helmet. Grab a mallet. Arm your pony with breast plates. The polo wars are about to begin: A group of Venezuelan investors led by an Egyptian oil analyst want to build an exclusive polo club and equestrian center on a stretch of Dade County wetlands environmentalists claim are vital to Everglades restoration.

La Primera International Corp., whose president Mostafa Hassan once served as an adviser to the Emir of Qatar, has owned the 800-acre site since 1979. Located along the west side of Krome Avenue and abutting the south side of Tamiami Trail, it forms part of an 89-square-mile tract known as the Lake Belt Area, one of the most environmentally sensitive territories in South Florida, according to a special committee established by the state legislature to forge a development plan for the region.

Environmentalists fear that the proposed development -- on land that is now zoned for single-family homes on lots of at least five acres -- could set a precedent for further building in the Lake Belt, draining away precious water destined for the Everglades and Florida Bay.

On several occasions over the past nineteen years, La Primera has attempted to develop the property, first as a theme park in conjunction with the Miccosukee Indian tribe, then with area rock miners as a limestone quarry, and finally as a golf course. None of the ideas came to fruition. Now the company is trying again, this time with a high-profile project -- the Royal Miami Polo Club.

"I think Miami needs this type of facility," asserts Mostafa Hassan's son Joseph, who runs JH International, a Miami-based subsidiary of La Primera that will oversee the project. "There is not a well-defined equestrian industry here. You have to go all the way to West Palm."

Joseph Hassan envisions polo fields, stables, a small inn for visiting competitors, riding trails, and 160 luxury homes. Preliminary estimates put the cost at roughly $70 million. To guide him through the political and bureaucratic maze, Hassan has assembled a team of well-connected consultants as impressive as his project is ambitious. Among them: venerable zoning attorney Stanley Price, savvy political consultant Phil Hamersmith, and Coral Gables engineer Edward Swakon. "If we were to put this on trial to the public and politicians, we believe they would say, 'We can live with this,'" Hamersmith says gamely.

Instead of peaceful coexistence, however, environmental groups are trying their best to kill the Royal Miami Polo Club before it even takes shape. "We are adamantly opposed to this development," declares Mary Munson, co-chairwoman of the Everglades Coalition, the Washington, D.C., organization that represents 39 environmental groups working in South Florida. Munson has urged coalition members to contact the various governmental agencies with jurisdiction and express their opposition.

Over the past six months, the would-be developers have met with staff members from local, state, and federal agencies -- including Guillermo Olmedillo, director of Dade's Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation -- to identify preliminary concerns over the proposed development. Olmedillo greeted the proposal with skepticism, he recalls.

"We knew there was going to be some resistance," Hassan acknowledges, but he says his group will be flexible in adapting the project to conform with legal requirements.

When Mark Kraus, Everglades conservation director of the National Audubon Society, learned of the proposal, he quickly contacted the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), one of several agencies that must approve the company's plans to fill in 458 acres of wetlands at the site. In the name of the Audubon Society, Kraus urged DERM to deny the permit.

Audubon and other environmental groups have eyed the Lake Belt as a buffer zone between development and a newly expanded Everglades. The zone would consist of an interconnected system of marshes and lakes. The network, which would parallel Krome Avenue from the La Primera land north to U.S. 27 at the Dade-Broward line, could be used to store water in times of rain, prevent seepage from the Everglades to the east in times of drought, as well as provide habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities for residents. "The Lake Belt has a major impact on the whole Everglades system," Kraus argues. "We are working hard to set up a reasonable plan for this area. To allow something like this to gum up the works is not acceptable."

Long before horses snort and mallets meet little white balls, though, La Primera must pass through multiple regulatory challenges. At the county's Department of Planning, Development, and Regulations, a special committee with representatives from the school district and other agencies must approve the proposal, a process that could take six months.

The project will require zoning variances for the proposed inn, for unusual recreational use, and for a plan to cluster the homes rather than spread them out on five-acre lots. The variances must be approved by Community Council 10, one of fifteen locally elected zoning boards. Their ruling in turn could be challenged in court.

The South Florida Water Management District also needs to approve the project before developers can break ground. In a February 13 letter responding to La Primera's initial proposal, district officials asked the company to provide answers to 34 queries covering subjects such as the need for aerial photographs and measures to protect the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

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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