A Course of Course!
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Real Estate 101. My name is Carl Fisher. Just so you know, I've been dead for the past 66 years. Yes, I am an apparition, a figment of your morose imagination. I was one of the legendary hucksters who bamboozled hundreds of hopeful snowbirds out of gazillions of dollars to buy my beachfront swampland. Today I'm going to take you on a tour of one of my most prized developments, where a modern-day feudal class war is taking place between a group of upper-class homeowners and their much richer and much snobbier neighbor, La Gorce Country Club.
But first allow me to give you a little history behind this fabulous neighborhood I created, beating my West Coast counterpart William Randolph Hearst to the San Simeon punch. The year was 1927. Despite my penchant for binge-boozing, I had made Miami Beach into the new West Palm Beach: a tropical garden of winter homes where the wealthiest people in America could relax in complete and utter leisure, refinement, and luxury, or LR&L, as I like to call it. I had the hokey idea of building an affluent enclave anchored by a spectacular world-class golf course.
So I dredged up about one million cubic yards of Biscayne Bay muck and used it to build La Gorce golf course, named for my dear friend John Oliver La Gorce, who went on to edit National Geographic Magazine. I also hired famed architect August Geiger to design this magnificent U-shape, two-story Mediterranean Revival-style clubhouse. It had twin staircases on the north and south sides of the interior courtyard that led up to a grand balcony on the second floor of the building. It was a scene straight out of a Mary Pickford film.
The golf course and the clubhouse were a hit. For the grand opening in March 1928, I organized the first Miami Beach La Gorce Open Golf Tournament. I named the holes after some of the greatest athletes, entertainers, and moguls of my era -- grand chaps such as Harvey Firestone, William Kissam Vanderbilt, Will Rogers, and Eddie Rickenbacker.
We had white folks lining up from all over the country, buying up the breathtaking single-family homes I built on the east side of Alton Road and on the west side of La Gorce Drive, from 51st Street to 62nd Street. What made the homes so beautiful was the lot configuration. The houses were set back at least twenty feet from Alton Road and La Gorce Drive so the property owners would have unobstructed back-yard views of the 138-acre golf course. This allows the properties to maintain their outrageous values, even during the worst of recessions. In fact it is a key factor in their marketability.
Of course, my real estate companies were very selective of the clientele they allowed to purchase on La Gorce. Only members of the Caucasian race could buy into my rolling green fantasyland. However, I did grant buyers permission to keep their non-Caucasian personal servants on their property.
Still, rich snots can be ungrateful at times. I remember receiving a letter July 2, 1930, from one of my agents, Paul Kunschik, about some homeowners raising a stink about their property taxes being out of proportion to the taxes I paid on my golf course and my polo fields. That year City of Miami Beach officials reassessed my golf course at $1000 an acre -- $140,000 to be exact. Nevertheless, I took the city for chumps at the craps table, considering $1000 an acre represented only fifteen percent of the golf course's true value.
Alas, before a gastric hemorrhage snuffed me out in 1939, I had to sell my interest in La Gorce Country Club, as well as most of my prized assets, to pay off debt. La Gorce Country Club and the surrounding neighborhood have changed a great deal since the days I was hawking lots at eight grand a pop and Negroes had to leave Miami Beach by sundown.
Thanks to the civil rights movement, people of all creeds and colors now own sumptuous La Gorce houses, including -- gasp! -- interracial and homosexual couples. Even the country club eased up on the discriminatory practices I put in place by opening membership to some mighty affluent Jews and Cubans from all over Miami-Dade. In my day, it took a little more than amassing a few million dollars' net worth to get through the door. Now they let all the nouveau riche riffraff have run of the place.
Over the years, my grand vision of seamlessly connecting the golf course to the back yards of these wonderful homes has been torn asunder by the cheeky monkeys who now run La Gorce. I'm talking about the club's board of governors, a group of deep-pocketed fiends led by their hot-tempered president, Roberto Sanchez -- a man who doesn't even have the gentlemanly courtesy to return phone calls.
Four years ago, La Gorce's board, despite protests by neighboring property owners and historic preservationists, demolished my clubhouse to make way for a hideous cookie-cutter building with the jejune ambiance of a Hyatt. Knowing that the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board was considering designating the building a historic structure, the La Gorce board pulled the audacious stunt of tearing the clubhouse down in the dead of night. The chicanery continued in 2002 when the homeowners learned the country club's governing board was planning to erect a fence along the perimeter of the golf course -- an obvious first step in blocking the back-yard views of the links.
The homeowners turned to the Miami Beach City Commission to preserve their vistas. The city commission passed an ordinance barring the country club from constructing the fence.
But Sanchez was an undaunted, determined fellow. He ordered his lawyers to sue the City of Miami Beach in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. I can't say I blame the guy. Legally speaking, Sanchez was well within his rights to put up a fence on his property. It breaks my lifeless heart to see this man ruining my legacy.
I must say I was not surprised to learn the country club won its case. I wouldn't expect an oily circuit court judge to appreciate the historic value the La Gorce houses have retained owing to the back-yard views of the golf course. Meanwhile city officials are showing the backbone of a mud-scurrying trilobite. They are waving the white flag, acceding victory to Sanchez and his ugly black wrought-iron fence. And the city would probably allow him to dig a moat swarming with alligators, judging by the defeatist attitude being expressed by some city commissioners.
"The country club has the city stuck between a rock and a hard place," says Miami Beach Commissioner Luis Garcia. "They beat us in court. Only King Solomon can fix this one."
Adds Vice Mayor Matti Bower: "There are some things government can do for the people and some things we can't do. This is one of the situations where we really can't do anything."
Now the country club is moving forward with its fence installation, which has created another problem. Over time, as properties abutting the golf course changed hands, generations of homeowners have maintained, landscaped, and even built structures, from pools to decks to back-yard fences, on land now claimed by La Gorce. "Sadly, no one did a survey for many, many years," says country club treasurer Albert Eiber, a radiologist who joined the club ten years ago but has never had the pleasure of living on the golf course. "We decided to do a survey when the homeowners started complaining about the fence," Eiber explains. "Not only are people encroaching on our land, but some of the city's street ends belong to La Gorce."
Well, that's the way I planned it all along. I never intended to put up any barriers that would interfere with the views, so I saw no need to survey the properties. But I have to hand it to Sanchez, Eiber, and their board cronies. In true Fisher fashion, the country club is offering to lease the land back to the homeowners at $70 a square foot when easements in Miami Beach are averaging $5 a square foot. Some of the homeowners, who don't want any trouble with the country club, have closed deals to retain anywhere from five square feet to twenty square feet of land the country club has claimed.
Eiber, who would have been a perfect pitchman for one of my many real estate ventures, says the country club could have asked for more money per square foot. "Seventy dollars is an extremely fair price," Eiber insists. "Someone might think we're nutty, but you don't have to lease it if you don't want to pay our asking price."
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I, Carl Fisher, would like to introduce you to a brave, idealistic homeowner who recently mounted a daring defense against the overlord of the links and country club president Roberto Sanchez.
Meet Rudy Gonzalez, a 41-year-old Cuban American who made a whole lot of money as a New York City investment banker before relocating with his wife to Miami Beach more than a year ago.
Gonzalez and his wife Claudia, a sweet Colombian lass with a sharp eye for trespassers, purchased a two-story Mediterranean villa with a back-yard pool on 60th Street and La Gorce Drive. They also bought the house next door because Gonzalez didn't want someone to buy the Colonial-style property, raze it, and build one of those tawdry McMansions you see going up all over the Beach these days.
Gonzalez traded in his banking stripes and now earns his keep as a realtor and mortgage broker in Miami's highly competitive market. Until recently, Gonzalez was somewhat ambivalent about the club's efforts to place a fence along the perimeter. "For me, the difference is half a foot," Gonzalez says. "They can go ahead and tear down my fence to put up theirs. I don't have a problem with that."
His problem, Gonzalez continues, has been the way Sanchez and some of the country club employees have mistreated the homeowners. As the original developer of the golf course, I found some of the allegations Gonzalez raised concerning Sanchez to be deplorable, despicable acts unbecoming of a country club president. Gonzalez, in particular, had a run-in with Sanchez and three of his cronies this past July 18.
That morning Gonzalez's wife Claudia was drinking a cup of coffee and eating a piece of whole wheat toast at her kitchen counter when she spied three haggard men in heavy clothing unlatching the gate to her weather-beaten white picket fence and entering her back yard. One of the trespassers held a machete in his right hand. A startled Gonzalez called out to her husband, who was in another room.
"The police had reported some break-ins in the neighborhood," Claudia Gonzalez recalls. "Something triggered in my brain that these might be some sick people looking to rob us."
Rudy Gonzalez sprang into action: He burst through the French doors to his back yard and confronted the interlopers, who had made their way onto the Gonzalez compound via the golf course. "I told them to get the hell off my property," Gonzalez says. "That's when the one holding the machete raised it in the air and told me they did not need to leave because they were on golf course business."
Re-enacting the tense scene by the pool, where he says he stood his ground, Gonzalez placed his right hand on his shorts' back pocket as if he were reaching for a pistol. "Just so you know," Gonzalez explains, "I was bluffing. I wanted to make them think they had brought a knife to a gunfight."
Gonzalez warned the intruders he would certainly defend himself if they tried to use the machete on him. "They scaled the fence and scurried off back onto the golf course," Gonzalez says. "But that's not the end of it."
He called 911, and two Miami Beach Police officers arrived. The cops caught up to the three men and questioned them. It turned out they were La Gorce employees who had been instructed by their country club bosses to mark the spot where La Gorce was planning to erect a black wrought-iron fence along the perimeter of the golf course.
"The officers told me these guys were just doing their jobs," Gonzalez grouses. "Doing your job does not give you the right to enter my property, brandishing a weapon and making threats. One of the officers told me he could arrest me because I exercised my right to stand and defend myself on my private property."
Still, Gonzalez relates, the real insult came later in the afternoon, when he met Sanchez. "He started off nice," Gonzalez says. "He apologized for the workers' behavior." Gonzalez informed Sanchez he did not want country club employees on his two properties.
Gonzalez also took the time to ask Sanchez about the country club's offer to lease golf course land to the homeowners at $70 a square foot. "I asked him: If the land is worth that much money, then why is the country club's tax assessment only 23 cents a square foot?" Gonzalez recalls, pointing out the county assessed the country club's property at $1.6 million in 2004, about fifteen percent of what the clubhouse and the rolling green are actually worth. "Why are they paying less taxes than I am on my two houses?" Gonzalez says he queried Sanchez.
Sure enough, Sanchez dropped the apologetic good-boy act and got testy with Gonzalez. "He made it abundantly clear that if I did not stop causing him problems," Gonzalez alleges, "my attempts to get renovation permits for my two properties would meet with difficulty at both the planning board and the board of adjustment, where his 22-year-old son is a board member."
Such a threat could be construed as an abuse of his official position, and Sanchez could face a criminal inquiry if Gonzalez were to file a complaint with prosecutors. I would have pulled off my white glove, slapped Sanchez across the cheek with it, and challenged him to a sudden-death golf game at dawn. Gonzalez, on the other hand, joined his fellow neighbors in a class-action lawsuit against the country club, claiming their property rights have been violated.
"It's not about the fence anymore," Gonzalez attests. "It's about the principle. I'm not going to let that guy bully me or abuse his power the way he did."
Unfortunately Sanchez doesn't seem interested in answering questions about his alleged boorish behavior. He did not return repeated phone calls I made from the afterlife. And his secretary told me he ripped up the letters I sent him requesting his audience before me, even denying my offer to buy him several rounds of scotch -- how I love scotch, scotch, scotch -- at the country club bar. "He doesn't wish to speak to you," she said.
So to get a sense of what drives this man to build a fence on my precious golf course, I turned to some people who know Sanchez. "Sanchez is really a nice guy," offered La Gorce board member Eiber. "But he's doing his job. We've been doing this song and dance for years. We sued and won. Now the homeowners are suing us, and we'll beat them again."
Whether Sanchez is being abrasive or intimidating is not the issue, Eiber said. "We own the property people are on," Eiber said. "We want to be good neighbors, but if you built a pool on our property, then we have a problem."
The country club bent over backward for the neighbors, Eiber grumbled. "You're probably hearing how we're a bunch of jerks," he said. "But it's not our fault people built on our property."
Besides, Eiber notes, 2005 is a much more litigious world than 1927, when I opened the golf course. "We have to secure our property," Eiber said. "If someone drowns in one of our lakes, we have legal responsibility."
But Vice Mayor Matti Bower and Commissioner Luis Garcia agreed Sanchez would be "very stupid" to go around threatening people by virtue of his position on the planning board. "I'd be very surprised if Roberto made such a comment," Garcia said. "He's smarter than that."
Bower and Garcia were the two commissioners who made the motion to appoint Sanchez to the planning board this past March. "He does have a temper," Bower acknowledged. "He blows his stack from time to time, and he is stubborn. He feels very strongly that the country club is private property and that he has a right to put up the fence."
However, Bower said she would encourage Gonzalez or any homeowner who can prove Sanchez is abusing his position to come forward. "We don't need anyone on our boards making trouble for other people," she said.
On August 30, days after Hurricane Katrina tore through South Florida, Jane Jantzen, an 89-year-old widow who owns a rustic Colonial-style house with vaulted ceilings on La Gorce Drive, was having an early-morning conversation with Gonzalez about his latest tempest with La Gorce.
Jantzen and her second husband, who died in 1989, bought their property in 1977, 36 years after my timely demise. Yet the couple represented just the right kind of people to whom I was marketing La Gorce. The Jantzens purchased their house upon retiring from their globe-trotting careers as civilians working for the military. They had hopped across exotic locales such as Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. "Miami Beach was a natural place to come to given we had lived our lives in the tropics," Jantzen says in a sweet voice.
The soft-spoken widow has been a country club founding member for almost as long as she has lived here. She and her husband chose the house because of the golf course. "I'm a golfer," she says. "No sense in buying a house around here if you are not going to join the club. In fact I've been chair of the women's golf committee several times."
However, Jantzen doesn't play as much golf as she used to. The heat, she says, tires her quickly. "Last time I played was in April," she recalls. "This year has been particularly hot."
Jantzen's gray-blue eyes are fixed on Gonzalez, who is playing with his host's immaculately groomed cocker spaniel, Freckles. "They were out there fussing this morning," she says, referring to the golf course employees who have been coming by to install the fence posts.
Gonzalez tells Jantzen about a massive tree limb on the golf course that took out his white picket fence and then fell into his pool, jutting out of the water like a dead Amazonian anaconda. "I asked them what are they going to do with their tree," he states. "They told me it wasn't their problem. But a month ago Sanchez is telling me it belongs to the golf course and I have to buy it."
"That's just unbelievable," Jantzen replies. Even though she is a long-time founding member, Jantzen says she's simply another homeowner fighting to protect her back-yard view too. "They just came into my yard," she mentions, referring to the fence posts. "I only found out because Freckles wouldn't stop barking at them."
But Jantzen refuses to play ball with the country club when it comes to leasing land in her back yard now claimed by La Gorce. By doing so, she risks losing part of the yard where she has nurtured orange, lime, banana, and ylang ylang trees. "They're also going to take part of the side street between my house and the property next door," she says. "It's outrageous."
Jantzen, like Gonzalez, thinks the country club's lease terms are close to bloody extortion. "Seventy dollars a foot?" an incredulous Jantzen says during a brief respite in her Florida room. "C'mon!"
Later on, during a stroll along the golf course, Gonzalez plots a far-fetched strategy to claim the course in the name of the average citizen. He envisions leading a petition drive to place a ballot question before the voters: Should the City of Miami Beach take the golf course property through eminent domain in order to convert it to a public park? "It already counts as open green space," Gonzalez points out. "Yet it is only open to millionaires who can afford the pricey memberships. Wouldn't it be nicer to make the golf course into a park where the guy stocking soaps at a local hotel's bathroom has a place to take his children?"
Certainly not on the golf course Carl Fisher built.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.