Article Courtesy of The
By Linda Robertson
Published October 31, 2020
Calusa Country Club was a green oasis surrounded by the strip shopping centers
and traffic-choked streets of West Kendall, poster community for all that went
wrong in sprawling suburbia.
Golfers loved the course. Neighboring homeowners gathered inside the clubhouse
for wedding receptions, parties, card games, breakfasts and banquets.
But since Calusa closed in 2011, no one has sliced a drive or toasted newlyweds.
Fairways have been swallowed by subtropical vegetation. Foxes, hawks and herons
have made habitats out of putting greens and water hazards. A chain-link fence
has been erected around the entire 168 acres.
And the neighbors who
once played rounds together or shared backyard cocktails
while overlooking beautiful vistas? They don’t speak
anymore. They avoid eye contact at Home Depot. Or give a
cold shoulder during dropoff at Calusa Elementary School.
Calusa golf course, once their pride and joy, the very
reason they bought homes in the neighborhood, has become
their albatross. Its fate, tied up in lawsuits,
nondisclosure agreements and secret settlement payoffs from
landowner Facundo Bacardi of the Bacardi rum empire to
homeowners rumored to be as high as $300,000 each, has torn
the community apart.
Two sides to tell their story to County Commission
One side is expected to tell Miami-Dade County commissioners
on Thursday why a 99-year covenant preserving the land as a
golf course until 2067 should be upheld. The other side will
argue they have a right to exercise an out clause that
removes the restriction and would pave the way for a
developer to build at least 500 houses on the defunct
Kendall homeowners protest against developers
building 450 houses on defunct Calusa golf course
At stake isn’t just the future of Calusa,
where residents dread a compounding of their congested commutes and the
bulldozing of their green sanctuary, but the question of how much power a
billionaire property owner can wield over land-use decisions and how much
money dictates what is or isn’t built throughout Miami, where real estate
development is the dominant economic and political force.
“We invested our life savings with the expectation that we were moving into
a golf course community protected by a 99-year covenant,” said Amanda Prieto,
a homeowner who lives 300 feet from the course at 9400 SW 130th Ave. and a
leader of the Save Calusa campaign.
“It is the duty of our commissioners to uphold a fair zoning process for
everyone who is impacted and not allow it to be sabotaged by bribes and
threats of protracted litigation.”
Vanessa Vazquez grew up in Calusa and her mother Cathy Vazquez has been a
teacher at the elementary school for 30 years. She started dreaming of
owning a home there at age 5. She paid a premium to buy her $600,000 house
on the golf course in 2016.
She would like to see the course refurbished and reopened, but if not, she
prefers an abandoned green space “that is so gorgeous and full of wildlife
that you can’t put a pricetag on it” over a housing development. She enjoys
what nature has reclaimed as “our version of the Serengeti,” she said.
“So if covenants are for sale, what’s next? How about the Everglades, it’s
just sitting there growing wild,” Vazquez said. “Or my grandmother’s little
house next to her elderly neighbors who are being bought out to build
monster high-rise apartments. Or that waterfront home you purchased only to
find out they’re putting in a marina.
“What’s happening in Calusa can set a precedent and draw a line: No rich
person can buy a piece of land and bully the middle-class neighbors into
changing the zoning and building whatever he wants.”
A company owned by Facundo Bacardi, great-great grandson of the founder of
the Bacardi rum distillery in Cuba, chairman of Bacardi Limited and leader
of a family whose holdings are worth $19 billion, according to Bloomberg’s
Billionaires Index, bought Calusa Country Club for $2.7 million in 2003,
knowing the covenant could be lifted only if 75 percent of the 146 ring
homeowners abutting the course consented to waiving it and the county
Bacardi closed the club and course in 2011, asserting it had not been
profitable for eight straight years. When a series of hurricanes slammed
South Florida in 2005 and damaged the clubhouse, Bacardi did not repair it,
instead replacing it with a trailer and Porta-Potties.
“I was proud to live here and have my friends play here,” said George Moussa,
who has lived behind the 15th hole since 2000 and held his wedding reception
at the clubhouse. “When Bacardi bought it we were excited. But the greens,
fairways, carts and clubhouse deteriorated right off the bat. Anybody could
see there was no intention to upgrade or maintain it.”
Initially, Bacardi proposed building a ritzy private country club and elite
course, but a membership drive stalled. He then presented plans for a $200
million “life care retirement community” called The Gardens of Calusa, which
would have had 960 dwelling units, retail center and medical complex with a
vita course circling it, and connecting pathways for homeowners. The project
offers thousands to some homeowners
Bacardi offered a $50,000 payment to ring homeowners to sign a covenant waiver,
saying he understood their concerns about increased traffic, blotted-out views
and diminished property values.
Homeowners resisted. They formed a grassroots organization called Save Calusa
with the other 2,300 homeowners not directly on the course. In 2012 Bacardi’s
company lowered the offer to $5,000, and when his deadline passed he sued all
ring homeowners to invalidate the covenant.
Anticipating a long fight in court, ring homeowners formed a trust and chipped
in money for legal fees. In 2016, the homeowners won on appeal and the covenant
was upheld. In a separate decision, the county’s Planning Advisory Board denied
an application from Bacardi and developer GL Homes to change zoning and build
1,100 houses. Homeowners thought they had won.
But Bacardi’s company went back to members of the trust, citing three additional
counts in the lawsuit that would be litigated, and over the next three years
negotiated a settlement with 120 of the 146 ring homeowners.
Details of the deal and exact payments are not public. Ring homeowners had to
sign a nondisclosure agreement.
According to ring homeowners who did not want to give their names, ring
homeowners who were not trust members and homeowners who have talked to each
other, terms of the settlement include dropping the lawsuit, capping density
within the new subdivision, extending backyard property lines by up to 50 feet
and making payments ranging from $50,000 to $300,000.
“They bought their signatures and bought their silence and the rest of us feel
very much deceived and defrauded of our rights,” said Grace Daoud, who bought
her house on the course for $530,000 in 2014.
She’s a ring homeowner but was never invited to join the trust and didn’t know
it existed until a Miami Herald reporter knocked on her door and asked her about
it. She later found out the previous homeowner was a trust member.
“I’m disappointed that trust members made an unethical decision for me, the
person who lives here and didn’t have a voice,” Daoud said. “It’s in everybody’s
best interests to prevent development. I understand that they figured this fight
would never end and wanted to cut their losses, but I don’t feel sympathy for
them because they gave up and sold us out.”
Ana Pardo, another ring homeowner who knew nothing about the trust and
discovered the previous owner had agreed to waive the covenant a month before he
sold, said she would never agree to remove it. She said she was contacted by a
lawyer earlier this year but told him she was not interested in signing a
Fight fractures Calusa community
Ring homeowners who did sign are now regarded as traitors even though they argue
they made a practical compromise.
“They fought passionately against development with everybody and then they
backstab us,” Pardo said. “We were unified and now we’re bickering like Trump
“You have to question whether they decided to use Save Calusa to build up their
leverage and negotiate a better deal for themselves. Not one person in Calusa or
the adjoining neighborhoods wants this except those eager to get their money and
Vazquez, a real estate broker, said some signers, including a widow who is ready
to downsize, don’t understand that their payments won’t fully compensate them
for the loss in property value on homes they’ll no longer be able to sell as
right on a golf course.
GL Homes, the developer who has a contract to purchase the property from Bacardi
- Calusa homeowners have heard the pricetag is $100 million - will show
commissioners the signatures of 120 ring homeowners, well over the 75 percent
required to lift the covenant, which would be the first step in ending the
stalemate on the land.
What the housing development will look like will be hashed out during the public
zoning process down the road, said Dick Norwalk, senior vice president of GL
Homes, which has created developments at other failed golf courses, most
recently at Polo Trace in Delray Beach, where 97 percent of homeowners agreed to
lift restrictions and 324 homes were constructed. Sunrise-based GL homes has
built 76 planned communities in Florida, including 19 golf communities in
GL Homes: ‘Never going to be a golf course again’
“We want to release the restriction that says Calusa is golf or nothing,”
Norwalk said. “For nine years it’s been nothing. It’s never going to be a golf
course again. Golf isn’t going work on that piece of valuable land. It’s a
fenced-off private vacant lot. To say it is community green space that is being
lost is a bit of a false narrative.”
Florida has 1,306 golf courses, more than any other state in the country. Golf
communities were all the rage during a boom from 1986 to 2005 when 4,500 courses
were built in the United States. That led to oversaturation and a “market
correction,” according to a 2019 report from the National Golf Foundation.
Participation is up 37 percent in Florida in 2020, an October report from the
foundation said, fueled by young golfers and people seeking a recreational
outlet from the coronavirus pandemic.
Golf course closures in Florida
But there’s still an overabundance of courses. For the last 13 years, course
closures have exceeded course openings. Builders confronting land scarcity and
demand for housing see closed or underused courses as appealing options for
“Don’t pretend this is a zoning hearing about a concrete jungle,” Norwalk said.
“This is about homeowners working out an agreement that ends litigation and wins
concessions on density.”
A compromise ends years of financial and emotional stress from a case they could
lose, said a ring homeowner approached by a Miami Herald reporter who said she
couldn’t give her name due to the nondisclosure agreement she signed.
“It’s the best we could do,” she said with resignation. “We had no choice.”
Blaming trust members for settling isn’t fair, Norwalk said.
“The outside homeowners can’t put the burden on ring homeowners to fight a
lawsuit they no longer want to fight,” he said. “These are the people directly
impacted. They fought to have input on the future of this property and
ultimately we came together with something that works for both of us.”
Clinging to an outdated purpose for the property while it lies fallow benefits
no one, said longtime Miami land use attorney Joseph Goldstein.
“Times change and there is no perpetuity, which is why there are provisions for
modification in covenants,” said Goldstein, who has dealt with dozens of golf
course covenants. “Getting consent of 75 percent of the ring homeowners is a
tall bar to cross. It’s difficult and expensive and shows a real commitment by
the property owner and developer to meet the needs of the vast majority.”
Petition with 3,700 signatures opposing development
David Winker, a Miami attorney representing Calusa homeowners, plans to question
the validity of some signatures. GL Homes is owner of two properties that would
be at the entrance of the development. One home in foreclosure is owned by a
bank. Two are for sale. Other signatories have moved away.
He’ll press commissioners to consider 3,700 signatures on a petition from Calusa
homeowners, plus homeowners in the Crossings and Devon Aire, two adjacent
“We’ll ask them to do their job and look out for the people, not the powerful,”
Other homeowners have suggested that the perfect solution would be for Bacardi
to donate the land he bought at a bargain rate and turn it into a namesake park.
“Right now I call it the Calusa Wildlife Preserve, but Bacardi Park — what a
beautiful legacy that would be,” said Michael Rosenberg, a ring homeowner for 26
years who remembers the course from its heyday, when he fished golf balls out of
his swimming pool. His daughter hosted her bat mitzvah celebration at the
Rosenberg did not sign to break the covenant, although he understands the
fatigue of fellow trust members “who won the battle of Alamo only to be told
they’d have to fight it over again, knowing there was no way they could outspend
As president of the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations he’s been
tilting at backhoes for years in the once-western boondocks most abused by
shortsighted overdevelopment. Inevitably, the invasion has come to his back
There’s no happy ending to the complicated Calusa saga, he said, but the
federation did pass a resolution urging a moratorium on all new construction in
gridlocked Kendall — “not even a doghouse.”