By Ryan Yousefi
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A drama of biblical flavor is unfolding in Surfside. In a key role is Eduardo Rodriguez, city manager of that town, who plays David. His Goliath is the manager of Indian Creek Village, Leonard Matarese. This is type casting. Matarese is six-foot-seven, 240 pounds, and has a reputation for being a tough guy.
The people who employ Matarese -- they are called the Philistines in the original version -- are the residents of Indian Creek Village, easily the wealthiest municipality in Dade County. It occupies a private island in Biscayne Bay and is shared by only 34 homesteads; a police department of seventeen people protects them. That's one cop for every two homesteads. The average assessed value of the properties is around $2.5 million, which means their true market value is much more. Owners include supersinger Julio Iglesias, agro-business titan Dwayne Andreas of Archer Daniels Midland, car dealer extraordinaire Norman Braman, golf pro Raymond Floyd, former Dolphins coach Don Shula, Lennar Corp. honcho Leonard Miller, a stray Japanese businessman, and according to Surfside officials, one Saudi tycoon whose identity is cloaked behind corporate ownership. Matarese doesn't comment on who does or doesn't live there. "Suffice it to say that anyone who lives here is well-to-do and well-known," says Matarese, who doubles as Village police chief.
Adds Rodriguez: "These are very wealthy people and they and this guy Matarese have been trying to steamroll us. Well, we're not going to let them."
So what is the war about? The use of a single plot of land. The private residences of Indian Creek Village line the edge of the island while its core is taken up by the exclusive Indian Creek Country Club. The tiny island is separated from its neighbors in decidedly middle-class Surfside by a guarded bridge and the waters of narrow Indian Creek -- except, that is, for three lots on the Surfside bank of the waterway, which are owned by the village. It is on one of those lots that the village has chosen to build its new 4000-square-foot municipal hall and police station.
"They don't to build it on their own island because they are rich and famous and don't want to affect their lifestyles," huffs Rodriguez. "They want to build it in a purely residential area of our town. Well, we have a lifestyle that we enjoy and we're trying to protect that too." The name of the town is Surfside, not Serfside, after all.
Matarese hotly defends his residents. "These are some of the nicest people I've ever met. They're not arrogant at all, and they have bent over backward to meet the objections of the town of Surfside. But the village owns that land, it's zoned for government use, and we are going to build that building on it. Make no mistake about it."
They are not building at the moment. Construction, which began two months ago, was stopped voluntarily by the village after Surfside filed a lawsuit February 6 in Dade County Circuit Court. The suit alleges a conflict of interest that would render illegal the transfer of the lot in question from the country club to the village government in 1996. Surfside claims that Kenneth Fisher, mayor of the village, was also an officer of the club, creating the conflict and violating state law. It also claims that construction as planned violates a property easement that would make it impossible for Surfside to maintain a storm-drain line that runs under the property. (That problem, Matarese says, has been rectified since the suit was filed.)
Matarese explains that the town has outgrown its very small municipal hall -- about ten by fifteen feet -- located on the island. There is a large empty lot on the island that would easily accommodate a new village hall, but it's owned by the country club and would cost four million dollars, Matarese claims, if the club wanted to sell, which it doesn't.
The land across the bridge cost them only $425,000. Matarese reports that the new building, which will primarily be used by the village police, will be residential in appearance, Mediterranean in style, and "probably the nicest building on that block. We have tried to be as neighborly as possible," he repeats. "The building is really smaller than it should be. We have provided for a public walkway so the people of Surfside can have access to the water, with places to sit next to the creek. We're putting landscaping in front of the building so you can't even see it from the street. We reduced the number of parking spaces when they asked us and the level of lighting. We're answering their complaints about ingress and egress. All at extra expense that has raised the total cost of the building to $850,000. What else do they want?"
Rodriguez has a simple answer to that: Build the hall on the island.
The village has kept a trailer on the lot in question for several years, using it as a temporary facility for Matarese, the town clerk, and the police. But Surfside neighbors say they didn't know the arrangement would be made permanent. "At two or three in the morning police cars are slamming their doors," gripes Eli Tourgeman, who lives next to the lot. "Before, there was only one police boat parked on the water. Now there are three -- three boats in one small police department. I have to keep my windows closed at night because of the noise and the fumes. Would any of these residents, with their multimillion-dollar residences, allow this to be built next to their homes? No way."
Counters Matarese: "When you live on the water and complain about boats, it's like living in the Rocky Mountains and complaining about snow."
Frida Slapak, who lives directly across the street from the site, pleaded with members of the county's Developmental Impact Committee, which oversees some issues of Biscayne Bay shoreline development. "Our property values are going to go down," Slapak predicts. "Why do they have to build it there? Because they don't want this on their island, which would decrease the values of their properties."
Mayor Paul Novack of Surfside says he's angry because the whole project was planned behind the backs of Surfside's residents. He claims the village did not notify Surfside officials of meetings at which construction was discussed, although Surfside requested such notification.
Because the island's roads are private and can't be traversed without permission, it was impossible for Surfside officials to reach the old village hall to see for themselves when such meetings were scheduled, Novack says. This, he argues, violates the spirit (and maybe the letter) of state Sunshine laws guaranteeing open government. "The fact that you are at another income level does not put you in a different category of law," he declares. "This is supposed to be an open-public operation. It's run more like a private club than a municipal government."
That was the initial issue that angered Surfside manager Rodriguez after he took office in February 1997. "First my predecessor and then I wrote to them asking that they let us look at the plans," he recounts, "but we got no answer." Rodriguez, who is 47 years old, says he finally stalked into the village municipal trailer and demanded a copy of the plans. Matarese complied, but claims the plans were always on display in the trailer and accessible to Surfside leaders. "What they wanted was to participate in the design process," says the 49-year-old Matarese, "and the village council didn't think that was appropriate."
Once it did obtain the plans, Surfside didn't like what it saw. "I'm a former planner for the City of Miami," Rodriguez says, "and it makes no sense to put your city hall and police station on the outskirts of your municipality. No sense at all."
Surfside also disliked other details of the project, so the city decided to do battle. Rodriguez says the town contacted eight architectural firms to represent it in its struggle with the village, all of whom turned them down when they found out who they were up against. The opposition wasn't just wealthy residents of the village, but Dade mega-developer Armando Codina, whom they hired as a consultant; and the powerhouse law firm of Greenberg Traurig. Senior partner Robert Traurig himself showed up for the Developmental Impact Committee meeting at county hall in late March. "If you have the money, that's the way you do business in this county," grumbles Rodriguez. "You bring in the heavy guns."
Negotiations got rocky quickly. Rodriguez claims Matarese tossed the first stone by accusing Surfside of trying to extort $35,000 from the village in order to relocate an easement. Rodriguez says the amount would have paid for work legitimately tied to the project. "From that point on," Rodriguez fumes, "I considered him a liar, and I have no respect for him. I understand he's caused these kinds of bad feelings before in other positions he's held." So Surfside began to play hardball. When the village asked permission to connect the new city hall to an existing Surfside sewer line, for example, Surfside refused, forcing the village to build septic tanks on the property.
Matarese asserts that the Surfside complaints are just political posturing meant to appeal to voters: "It's easy to beat up on successful people." Ultimately, though, Surfside can't win the lawsuit and city officials know it, Matarese says. "They want to drag this out as much as they can and make it cost us as much as possible. But in the end, we're going to build. Not building it is just not a possibility.