Play Ball!

That's what many Key Biscayne parents want to hear, but what others fear

In response to the county's decision to build a massive tennis center in Crandon Park (now home to the annual Ericsson Open tennis tournament), the Matheson family, which had donated the 975 acres that created the park, filed a lawsuit to halt the project. Litigation eventually gave way to negotiation, with the result being a radical new master plan for Crandon, meticulously crafted by family spokesman Bruce Matheson and adopted by the county commission in 1993. That plan calls for a dramatic reduction in active uses of the park, including the conversion of the two existing baseball fields to a large grassy meadow and a prohibition on the creation of similar sports facilities in the future.

In short, the county guessed wrong when it counted on Crandon Park's perpetual availability for new athletic fields to serve the growing needs of Key Biscayne. “If we had been incorporated earlier, we would have playing fields,” says Sime Conroy, referring to the lost opportunity to require developers of the Ocean Club and Grand Bay projects to set aside property for public parkland. A similar opportunity presented itself in the early Nineties, when a momentarily shaky economy prompted the builders to scale back their projects. Revised plans had to be approved by the newly incorporated village council. Sime Conroy, who won a seat on that body, saw it as a chance to win concessions for donated parkland, but the new plans won approval without any parkland component.

Bruce Matheson, who continues to wield extraordinary influence over Crandon Park, says he has no intention of changing the park's master plan to allow for new athletic fields. “I don't think the county or the state have any responsibility to provide playing fields for the Village of Key Biscayne,” he says flatly. Simon and his Athletic Club proponents, he suggests, should look to Virginia Key for lighted ball fields. (Simon dismisses the idea: “That area has been landfill that predates record-keeping. It's potentially toxic.”)

If Matheson is successful in blocking incursions into Crandon Park, the Athletic Club hopes to find an alternative in the Cape Florida State Recreation Area, a prospect that causes Mabel Miller to shudder. “Many of us consider this a constant threat to the state park system,” says Miller, a long-time environmental activist and Key Biscayne resident. “There's not a question in the world when it comes providing ball fields for kids: They should have them. But it becomes a matter of priorities when it comes to putting them on state parklands. We can't accede to everything [Simon and his supporters want]. That would set a terrible precedent.”

Miller is not alone in her concern. Albert Gregory, the Tallahassee-based chief of the office of park planning at the state Department of Environmental Protection, says Simon's Athletic Club allies have asked for Cape Florida lands in all but name. “Florida state parks were bought and set aside to provide natural-resources-based recreation, not user-orientated type recreation,” he explains. “Whatever we do in one state park has an effect on what we can say or do in other state parks.

“This land belongs to the people. Converting any percentage of Cape Florida acreage to athletic fields would open a Pandora's box,” Gregory elaborates, noting that any changes to the park's status as a place for passive recreation could mean returning millions of dollars in grants earmarked for restoration following Hurricane Andrew's devastating march across the area in 1992. Park rangers and hundreds of volunteers have nearly completed that work, painstakingly re-creating a landscape and ecosystem close to that which existed before mankind's intrusions. Even a crocodile has turned up in the newly cultivated mangrove estuary. Given such success, a request for land to build athletic fields couldn't come at a more inopportune time.

Despite opposition from Matheson and state park officials, Simon remains hopeful a compromise can be found. But he's bracing for the worst. In his role as president of the Athletic Club, he has created a sort of doomsday scenario for children's athletic activities -- setting upper limits for the number of kids who can participate, developing other types of restrictive measures, and more. “Reasonable people can find reasonable solutions so a child doesn't have to suffer,” he says. “If I'm not successful then it's this future generation who is going to lose.”

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