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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – As a February South Florida sun was about to set, Rebecca Watford sighed and smiled in the golden light. Watford, an attorney, was wrapping up her stressful day in what she described as her favorite ritual, walking her dog on a stroll through West Matheson Hammock Park.
“This is the closest thing to heaven for me,” she exclaimed, convinced her beloved pet adores the early evening forays there as much as she does.
“My dog lives for this! He smiles. His gums go up in a curl and I do the same,” she told CBS4’s Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen.
Watford and her dog are not alone in their attraction to a sprawling preserve that could be described as a pristine piece of paradise.
West Matheson Hammock Park is one of the South Florida’s first public parks, and was established in the 1930’s.
It sits in the heart of Coral Gables and predates the luxury multi-million dollar homes that now line its perimeter.
The park has attracted generations of nature lovers, two and four legged, able bodied and challenged.
But a group of devotees of the West Matheson Hammock Park say their freedom to roam here and that of their pets is being threatened by an extensive, restructuring plan proposed by Miami-Dade Parks.
Some park goers reached out to Gillen saying details and a time line of the plan, including cost, were difficult to come by.
To inquire about the park’s department vision, as reflected in the draft of the proposed plan, Gillen met with Maria Nardi of the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. Nardi is considered the point person spearheading the proposal.
“The entire area will be restored to its natural historic and natural landscape,” Nardi told Gillen.
Nardi began by talking about restoring the park to a botanical preserve, adding new indigenous foliage, stopping vehicular traffic into the Park and closing the gate that is now the most popular entrance on School House Road.
The new entrance, a site that would need major improvement, would be off of Old Cutler Road where visitors would traverse a bird watchers walking trail. A trail that is one third of a mile and currently has many park goers concerned that this would significantly limit their access, especially those in wheelchairs or who are disabled in any way.
“Public parks have to be for the public,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez who has held a public meeting on the matter, attended by many of the park goers who say they are against plans they see as a makeover of the park and its intended use.
“They are also a little concerned about why the county all of a sudden wants to change things. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Finally there is the issue of funding,” he added.
Gillen repeatedly inquired about the price tag for the new park vision, as reflected in public documents detailing the plans, in her interview with Nardi.
Gillen first asked, “We know money is always tight. What’s the price tag for the proposal that’s on the table now?”
“We’re looking into that because the plans have not been finalized,” said Nardi.
Gillen then asked, “Just in terms of the proposal that’s been presented, what’s the price tag of that proposal?”
“Like I said, we haven’t finished it yet.”
CBS4 News also attempted to ascertain the amount already spent on the consulting firm hired by the county to put together the extensive proposal.
“Can you tell me how much that consulting company contract is for?” asked Gillen.
“I will have to look that up for you. I don’t have anything on hand,” responded Nardi.
The current park entrance begins on Old School House Road.
Many park users told CBS4 News that they feel their public park access to West Matheson Hammock was already encroached upon by a guardhouse that was erected on that public road.
After a multi-pronged effort that had to weave its way through Coral Gable City Hall and the Miami-Dade County Commission, the Hammocks Lakes Homeowners Association won county permission to install the guardhouse and provide guard services, paid for with a special neighborhood tax.
The neighborhood of homes that surrounds the park is advertised as a gated community. But because the guardhouse is on a public road that leads to the public park, the guard is only allowed to stop vehicular traffic long enough to record the license plate of the visitors’ cars.
Bill Ogden is the long time president of the Hammock Lakes Homeowners Association and says the gate wasn’t intended to stop park goers, just nuisance drivers and commuters.
“Truthfully the reason for the guardhouse was to allow us to close off one of the roads to our neighborhood, which is to eliminate the excessive traffic,” Ogden told Gillen
At the time of the vote on the special taxing district, it was noted on the record that then Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez “expressed concern with limited access to the local park…”
In the end, long-time park user Myron Shapiro, who drives to the park from a nearby neighborhood, told Gillen, “It’s rather offensive to have to go and check in with a guard to get to a public park.”
Shapiro visited the park with Raison, a disabled dog who played in the park in his own makeshift wheelchair.
Shapiro expressed concern for the all handicapped visitors to the park if vehicles are banned from driving inside and if the paved road is unpaved as has been recommended.
At the park, lots of concern was raised to Gillen about the current trail which they said would be, somehow, made into the primary entrance. On the many days Gillen visited, it was not simple to navigate.
Watford recalled, “I’ve watched an elderly woman slip and fall there,” adding, “right now it’s in such disrepair!”
Troubling disrepair and worse said attorney Matthew Dietz, a disability rights expert who CBS4 asked to visit the park to and review proposed plans with a lens toward what it might mean to disabled visitors.
“It makes it into a secret hideaway, it doesn’t make it into a public park and that’s the difference,” said Dietz. “It’s a beautiful picnic spot, if you want to walk a half mile to get to your picnic spot. Unfortunately, all people can’t walk a half a mile to their picnic spot and that’s the problem. The goal of public parks is to have it open for everybody to use and not just for a few.”
Dietz said he was surprised to find the current conditions offered by the county for the handicapped visiting the Park.
Walking with Gillen down the trail off Old Cutler he said, “There is standing pooling water down there already. When it’s standing pooling water you are not going to be able to get through. It dangerous for people to even be there, but the biggest issue that I have for people with disabilities is it really denies them access.”
The proposed plans, according to county documents, say the restored park would include American Disability Act enhancements and would also increase public access. Critics say they are trying to figure out how that would be achieved.
In the meantime, Dietz said the county should know better than allowing handicapped parking spaces to be on grass which they currently are inside the park. That, combined with a visit to handicapped spaces at the Old Cutler entrance that were surrounding by brush, tree roots and pooling water? “Inaccessible. Completely inaccessible,” rated Dietz.
Gillen showed pictures of the handicapped parking, including the spots on grass to Nardi.
“Does that look ADA compliant to you?” asked Gillen.
“In what way? What do you mean?” responded Nardi.
“Just looking at it,” Gillen responded.
“Well, it allows for somebody to park adjacent to it,” Nardi said.
Gillen repeated Dietz claims that designated handicapped spaces should not be atop grass.
Nardi responded, “We will take a look at that.”
Gillen also asked Nardi about an issue that is of concern to some dog walkers who now walk their dogs off leash at the vast park – which is not designated as an official dog park.
There are signs at the park that dogs must be on leash according to a Miami-Dade County Ordinance, according to signs and workers at the site. The new plan calls for a fenced in area for off lease dogs.
Nardi said the proposed run would be the size of three football fields and that her team is working to strike a balance with all who would be affected.
Observers said creating a re-do of what for many is close to paradise doesn’t seem simple.
Nardi said the parks department wants to create a plan that addresses all needs.
The current proposal still has to be reviewed by the Miami-Dade County Commission before moving forward.
In the meantime, Commissioner Suarez sees the situation this way, “I think the parks department tends to get ahead of what the community wants and it is our task to make sure we listen to the community. So we are listening.”