Keep Off The Park, Part 2

Hurricane Andrew's assault on Dade left the county's nature lovers with a monumental grievance to lay at the feet of Mother Nature, in the form of a million or so scattered trees and acres of wind-blasted real estate. But the storm not only laid waste to Miami's landscape, it may yet prove a political disaster for area supporters of the "Save Our Parks" proposal.

The county charter amendment, drawn up last year by preservationist/attorney Dan Paul, aims to ensure that any major commercial development in a county park be subject to a popular vote. "All we want to do is keep politicians from turning our parks into profit centers without our approval," Paul says. Opponents of the measure argue that it will cripple the county's ability to pay for its nationally renowned park system, a concern plainly amplified by the massive damage wrought by Andrew.

Among the most prominent of those opponents is the county commission, which refused Paul's July appeal to place the amendment on the November 3 ballot. The commission's stonewall forced Paul to set about gathering the 62,000 petition signatures required to place a charter amendment before voters.

In late August the campaign appeared on track to go over the top well before the September 14 signature deadline. Environmentalist Bruce Matheson, a coordinator of the petition drive, reported that more than 40,000 names had been collected as of the week preceding the scheduled September 1 county elections. "The only problem was a few shopping malls and grocery stores that wouldn't allow us to gather names on their property," he said.

Then Andrew struck. Suddenly signing a tree-hugging petition seemed about the last priority for residents who felt lucky if they found a tree standing.

"Obviously, the hurricane set us back," concedes Matheson, point man in a highly publicized legal struggle to prevent the county from building a $16.5 million tennis stadium on park land his family donated to the public trust. "We can't hope to keep pace in the face of this kind of disaster."

Dan Paul's concern was sufficient that he went before the county commission during an emergency posthurricane meeting on August 27, to ask for a 30-day extension. "Given that we'd already gathered 45,000 signatures, it seemed clear that the public had a significant interest in this issue," says Paul, who learned of the meeting just fifteen minutes before it began. "But the commission appears so violently opposed to the public having a say in parks that they refused to even make a motion on my request. I think they're secretly delighted at the prospect that we might fail. But we are not going to fail."

Indeed, Matheson and his estimated 500 foot soldiers have planned a last-ditch election-day blitzkrieg. Having placed volunteers at some 300 polling places for yesterday's delayed county election, Paul expects that when the freshly inked John Hancocks are tallied, he will have far surpassed 62,000. "It'll be duck soup," he declares.

Should Paul's confident prediction come to pass, his forces face a more uncertain task: convincing at least half of Dade's generally uninterested -- and plainly distracted -- voters to support the plan on November 3. And that task, he knows, will meet with the opposition of forces far more powerful than supermarkets.


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