Updated 11 months ago
With the outside world lapping at its shores, an enclave of million-dollar condos debates its future.
Even an "Island Without Bridges," as Miami-Dade County's ultra-exclusive Fisher Island bills itself, is not immune to urban development battles. In the past two years, a high profile civil war has erupted on this 216-acre community of multimillion-dollar condos over how much growth the island can handle. At least two lawsuits are working their way through the courts, and one leading homeowner-turned-activist has been slapped with a 90-day suspension from the country club.
The proletariat must be smirking.
With new condominium units selling for an average of nearly $2 million apiece, Fisher Island is one of the most expensive chunks of real estate in the U.S. Once the winter home of William and Rosamund Vanderbilt, the island is accessible only by ferry. Among the notable homeowners: Oprah Winfrey, Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and tennis star Boris Becker. Where else, promotional brochures ask, can you find the seclusion and security of a tropical island with the hustle and bustle of an urban metropolis only 15 minutes away?
But that hustle and bustle is getting a bit too close for some residents. Fisher Island's 563 condo units were built a few at a time over the past 14 years. Early buyers enjoyed the virtual run of the island. The country club's golf, tennis and dining facilities were rarely visited. Today, island life is radically different. The number of year-round residents is increasing. So is the number of hotel visitors and non-resident club members -- off-islanders who invade the beaches, courts and restaurants, buzzing along the island's narrow roads with cars brought in by ferry.
Parking, some residents say, is a nightmare. Some complain of fire and other safety concerns brought on by increased visitation. Indeed, last March the Miami-Dade County Commission ordered traffic and fire-safety studies.
Whatever the studies reveal, some residents insist, island life will only get worse. Slated for construction: 315 additional condo units. Concerned that their island paradise is slipping away, a group of disgruntled residents filed suit last year alleging that Fisher Island's developers had fundamentally altered the "car-free, care-free" development concept promised to early buyers. "This is a (development plan) approved more than 10 years ago," says attorney Ronald Shapo. "We believe it should be looked at again."
No peace in sight
Fisher Island executives scoff at the charge. John Melk, chairman of Fisher Island Holdings, the development partnership that acquired the island a year ago from MBL Life Assurance, says the island's original master plan -- which all buyers were welcome to review -- called for 1,200 condo units. If anything, he says, the developers should be applauded for voluntarily reducing that total by more than 300. Melk says non-resident club memberships will be reduced upon build-out, but now are needed badly to offset the staggering costs of maintaining the facilities.
With construction on the remaining units expected to last up to six years, the debate threatens to drag on. Meanwhile, homeowners have fallen into one of three camps: those who approve of the current building plan, those who oppose all new development and those who favor the maximum allowable build-out as a way of reducing costs and fees. Discourse has not always been civil. One group hired a public relations firm to promote its cause. And in May, island resident Isidore "Skip" Pines was notified by the club's seven-member board of directors that his club privileges had been suspended for 90 days. Among his indiscretions: circulating protest leaflets without board approval and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Save Fisher Island."
Pines, who made his fortune selling Hebrew National hot dogs, lobs his own charges. He says he is continually harassed by management. Worse, he insists, one of the island's development partners tried to run him over with a golf cart. "There's such hatred around here you could cut it with a knife," says Pines.
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