Dog Fight: The West Matheson Debate

Will the barking over West Matheson Hammock ever end?

In the next few weeks, county officials are expected to unveil a final plan for a $3.3 million makeover of West Matheson Hammock Park that may include a paved parking lot on Old Cutler Road, an elevated half-mile wooden boardwalk over the Pipeline Trail, and a fenced three-acre enclosure where dogs can frolic unleashed. It currently also includes five parking spaces inside the School House Road gate for visitors with handicapped permits. That gate would be open to pedestrians and bicyclists but closed to all other vehicles.

Does that mean the years-long dog fight over the use of and access to 98 acres of tropical hardwood forest and grasslands off Old Cutler Road is about to come to an end? Not likely. The heated battle between homeowners who live adjacent to the park and object to traffic through their neighborhood when the School House Road gate is left open, and dog owners who, for nearly a decade, unleashed their pets to run freely over what the county has declared Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL), is almost certain to continue.

West Matheson Hammock Park
West Matheson Hammock Park outlined in pink. School House Road is labeled here as SW 52nd Ave.

Back in 2009, the parks department opened the gate on School House Road, allowing vehicle access to a paved service road used by maintenance vehicles. The park quickly became so popular that it showed up on Yelp as the area’s Unofficial Dog Park. Bill Ogden, president of the Hammock Lakes Homeowners’ Association (HOA), says up to 4,000 cars a month were coming into the neighborhood.

The park then became a flashpoint of controversy, a battlefield of conflicting interests that Miami-Dade County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, who serves the area, called “a doozy” of an issue. The combatants are passionate and committed.

“The ‘dog coalition’ has only one agenda,” says Ogden. “They want to go back to 2009 when the county parks department irresponsibly left the gate open and unsupervised for automobile traffic. Over the next nine years, the dog coalition co-opted the park with off-leash dogs, effectively driving away the customary park visitors.”

West Matheson Hammock Park
Pups roam freely off leash on School House Road at West Matheson Hammock Park.

Douglas Fernandez, who regularly takes his two Labradors to the park and started a Facebook group to rally other dog owners, has a different take. Commissioner Regalado, says Fernandez, “is being used by special interests to make sure the park closes and becomes private property of the HOA. Saying they don’t want traffic through their neighborhood is a lot of hot air and smokescreens. They are trying to land-grab Miami’s most treasured natural park. Our parks are in danger of being developed.” Regalado definitively disagreed in our interview, asserting, “West Matheson is not going to be developed. It’s not for sale. It’s for preservation.”

In 1930, when William J. Matheson and his son Hugh donated the bulk of the land that makes up the county’s largest park, the family heard from developers “but disdained all offers because they wanted to preserve it,” the Miami Daily News reported. The donated land would become the county’s first public park, maintained in perpetuity as “a botanical garden,” according to the newspaper.

The 353 acres on the east side of Old Cutler Road, which includes a mile of frontage on Biscayne Bay, was purchased by the county later that decade and became Matheson Hammock Park. With beachfront picnic shelters and, eventually, a marina, it became popular. West Matheson, however, remained wild and less trafficked, a quiet home to more than 30 endangered or threatened plant species and the great horned owl, among many other birds. That changed when the School House Road gate was opened.

West Matheson Hammock Park
Map of the general plan for West Matheson Hammock Park, presented during the May 8, 2023 public meeting.

The development that Fernandez says he fears does not mean condos or shopping centers but any additions to the park — an elevated boardwalk, for example — that violate the original Matheson deed. He has four goals listed on the Friends of Matheson Park website: unrestricted vehicular access into the park via the School House Road gate; the cancelation of the boardwalk project; no increase of parking spaces on Old Cutler Road; and the addition of traffic calming measures on Old Cutler to aid motorists coming and going from the lot.

Fernandez identifies his foes as a coalition of county officials and the Hammock Lakes HOA, and he fights them with guidance from “The Art of War,” the 5th century BC text by Chinese military general Sun Tzu. “Their strategy is influence and money, donating to politicians,” he says. “Ours is literature, keeping [people] informed.” In addition to frequent postings on Facebook, where he counts 600 followers, Fernandez also organizes rallies for canines and their owners, such as the “dog meet & greet” planned at West Matheson for Oct. 28.

Across the leafy ramparts is Ogden, a developer whose HOA represents 120 residences. He also invokes environmental concerns to oppose vehicle access through the School House Road gate and allowing drivers to park on EEL property. Ogden knows war, having served two tours in Vietnam as a Naval officer, but, he says, “This is not a battle, per se, but an argument. You can’t fight people who make up lies, where I am lambasted as a wealthy guy trying to keep everyone out. They are using misinformation and spreading it on social media. The dog people have taken that park hostage. Nobody in my neighborhood goes into that park.”

José Barros, president of Tropical Audubon Society, weighed in on the controversy through a letter to Regalado, and his assessment speaks to the complex issues that make West Matheson such a conundrum. Barros opposes construction of the boardwalk, contending it would only funnel more people and pets through the Pipeline Trail, the most sensitive area of the park. He favors keeping the School House Road gate open, creating more parking on land not designated EEL and barring off-leash dogs.

“Do not allow your reputable and respected organization to be misled by a group of people who have disguised themselves as environmentalists and put the recreational needs of dogs ahead of the long-term health and wellness of our environment,” Ogden responded furiously in a five-page letter.

County officials have consistently said that West Matheson is not a dog park. Dogs are permitted, yes, but must be on a leash. But for several years, “folks had their run of the place, and that created an expectation,” says Regalado. Fernandez, for one, takes his two unleashed dogs to the park regularly. Why? “Because there is no enforcement.”

That remains the toughest issue, the county acknowledges. In the latest iteration of the master plan, park officials list under “Challenges” the high cost of round-the-clock enforcement and the risk of “over-patrolling” a park where visitors come to get away. Under the heading “Opportunities,” the county suggests signage to “encourage good behavior,” park staff to provide visitors with a “friendly reminder,” and occasional spot patrols by law enforcement. Currently, the School House Road gate is controlled by a parks department employee and open only to hikers, bicyclists, and motorists with a handicapped permit.

Despite all the barking, Regalado says she is hopeful the controversy can be quelled. “It’s been very difficult to find a consensus, but it’s getting to the point where the status quo  is not an option. We’ve rolled out three plans, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s another set,” she said. At an online community meeting earlier this year, she added, “I really believe no one is going to be happy with the compromise. That’s why it’s a compromise.”