Play Ball!

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

If you were to look at the Village of Key Biscayne from the air, you'd think open space would be the least of its problems. The town, which incorporated as a city in 1991, is sandwiched between county-owned Crandon Park, with nearly 1000 acres, and the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area, consisting of 470 acres. That's plenty of parkland within easy hiking distance for the Key's 10,000 residents.

And if hiking or biking is on your agenda, you couldn't be better situated. But if it's organized, competitive sports you want, you could be in serious trouble, for virtually all that parkland is restricted to so-called passive-recreational use. That means no athletic fields for sports like soccer and baseball. And certainly it means no lights for night play.

Virtually every square foot of space inside city limits is already occupied, so Key Biscayne, with its burgeoning population of children, is facing a dilemma: Where can new athletic fields be accommodated? Efforts to solve the problem have drawn enthusiastic support from many citizens. But those very same efforts have given rise to grave concerns among environmentalists and park advocates.

Steve Simon, a Key Biscayne resident and father of four school-age children, has taken up the cause of creating new playing fields. As president of the Key Biscayne Athletic Club, a 43-year-old volunteer group that promotes after-school recreation for kids and adults, Simon has spearheaded a year-long campaign to acquire more land for sports. Through letters and e-mail messages, Simon and his allies have been attempting to enlist the support of Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida State Cabinet.

The missives do not specify precisely where the state might look for available land, but the Athletic Club's insistence that any new playing fields be located either within the Village of Key Biscayne or contiguous to it leaves little doubt: Sports supporters want a piece of Crandon Park or the Cape Florida site. Simon, a 48-year-old pathologist, affirms the implicit request contained in the letters: “We are surrounded by 1500 acres [of parkland]. With two percent of that, our problem would be solved.”

Never in Key Biscayne's history have so many children participated in Athletic Club activities. About 450 of them played in last year's soccer leagues; another 260 took part in baseball and softball. In the past few years, Simon reports, participation has gone up between ten and twenty percent annually, growth that can be attributed to the increasing number of young families who have moved to the village since it incorporated, attracted by the Key's appealing small-town ambiance.

But as more and more children have arrived, the playing fields previously utilized by the Athletic Club and the city's department of recreation have been gobbled up by construction intended to provide room for their education. The fields at the St. Agnes Academy Catholic school, where kids once played baseball from March till June, have been partially closed for the building of sixteen new classrooms and several other structures, part of a $3.3 million project that will take a year to complete and will eventually include a soccer field, a baseball diamond, and a basketball court. The field at Key Biscayne Community School, the only public school on the island, has been reduced as well. Portable classrooms now stand in areas once devoted to soccer fields.

The Athletic Club also has used two softball diamonds in Crandon Park, but because the fields are shared with county leagues, scheduling conflicts have been troublesome. Moreover in five years the county plans to remove the diamonds altogether. The transformation from illuminated fields to darkened meadows, says Simon, will kill his 500-strong soccer program for nine- to sixteen-year-olds. “Make no mistake: When those lights go, that's the end,” he asserts. “Our high school and middle school kids mostly go to school off of the Key, and by the time they get back home for practice, the sun is already starting to go down. It will be too dark to practice.”

So where would he like to see new playing fields? Simon points to the southern edge of Crandon Park as an ideal site, though he refuses to provide more detail, or even to specify which side of Crandon Boulevard he'd prefer. But not only does he see that general location as feasible, he and many other residents believe the county owes Key Biscayne a big favor and should offer it up willingly. “The reason Key Biscayne ran out of land [for athletic facilities] is because when the last two big tracts of land were around prior to incorporation and the county had control, it granted development,” says Simon, referring to a now-developed stretch of land along the east side of lower Crandon Boulevard that comprises roughly 96 acres.

Betty Sime Conroy remembers the county's miscalculation. A veteran local activist who served as chairwoman of the Key Biscayne Council when it was an informal lobbying group before incorporation, she notes that in the late Eighties county officials approved two huge condominium and hotel projects -- the Ocean Club and the sprawling Grand Bay development -- on the assumption that Crandon Park would be available to satisfy the county's required allotment of playing fields. But a series of protracted and fiercely fought lawsuits changed all that.

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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