A campaign led by auto dealership mogul Norman Braman and developer Jorge Perez to stop a Jai Alai fronton and card room from being developed in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood was dealt a winning hand earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman ruled the City of Miami unlawfully approved a settlement with West Flagler Associates, owners of Magic City Casino and other gambling sites in the city, to let the company build the fronton and card room on a property at 3030 Biscayne Boulevard owned by Crescent Heights, the development firm headed by Russell Galbut.
Hanzman determined that Miami City Attorney Vicky Mendez erroneously opined that Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s Feb. 21, 2020 veto of the West Flagler settlement was not applicable because the city commission’s approval of the agreement did not constitute a land use decision per the city’s charter.
“The court concludes that the commission’s decision to enter into this settlement agreement was a ‘land use decision’ as that phrase would be understood by the average citizen,” Hanzman wrote. “The decision to give the mayor this broad veto power was carefully considered and enacted into law because ‘land use decisions’ can dramatically impact the health and well-being of a community.”
In an email statement, Mendez said the city is still evaluating what it’s next step will be, including a possible appeal. “We appreciate Judge Hanzman’s efforts in trying to clarify the complex issues in this case,” Mendez said. “We are reviewing the court’s order to determine how best to proceed in light of the ruling.”
In a written statement, Braman said he and the other plaintiffs are pleased with Hanzman’s decision. In March of last year, entities controlled by Braman and Perez joined forces with two homeowner associations to sue the city and West Flagler. “With help from the mayor and commission, Miami has become a world class city and is on the precipice of further transformational leaps,” Braman said. “The last thing our city needs is the plight and desolation that come with casino gambling.”
Joseph DeMaria, a partner with Fox Rothschild representing West Flagler, said his client doesn’t want to appeal Hanzman’s ruling and would prefer to redo the process for approving the settlement agreement, which would involve another vote by the city commission and a possible second veto from Suarez. The difference is that this time, his clients want the city commission to vote on overriding the mayor’s veto by a supermajority, DeMaria said during a phone interview.
“If we get to that point and the city commission does override a veto, great,” DeMaria said. “If it doesn’t get overridden, then we will go to trial and we believe we will win.”
The settlement agreement had put the brakes on a pending federal lawsuit West Flagler filed against the city over an ordinance that would require the company to seek final approval for the fronton from city boards and the city commission. West Flagler contends that a 2012 opinion by then-zoning administrator Barnaby Min allows the fronton to be built and that the casino operator only has to obtain state permits to open the jai alai and card room facility.
In an earlier ruling for the Braman-Perez lawsuit, Hanzman ruled Min’s opinion had no legal basis, said Grace Mead, a shareholder with Stearns Weaver Miller, which represents the plaintiffs. “The letter West Flagler obtained would have opened up two-thirds of the city to gambling,” Mead said. “It has no legal effect and because of that they don’t have a legal basis to move forward with the Jai Alai facility in Edgewater.”
DeMaria said his client is offering the city the same terms, including waiving all attorney fees and a stipulation that West Flagler will not place slot machines in the proposed fronton and card room. “The same day Hanzman ruled, I resubmitted the settlement agreement to the city,” he said. “If it doesn’t get approved, all bets are off. Mr. Braman and his anti-gambling crusade need to seriously think about what he’s doing to the city. This is going to be a pari mutuel activity, which has been around since 1932.”