Don't build houses on defunct Calusa golf course, Kendall homeowners plead

Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald

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 course.

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 commission approved.

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 never materialized.

Bacardi 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 waiver.

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 and Biden.

“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 move out.”

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 Southeast Florida.

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 residential development.

“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 neighborhoods.

“We’ll ask them to do their job and look out for the people, not the powerful,” Winker said.

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 clubhouse.

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 Mr. Bacardi.”

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 yard.

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.”