Don Shula Sues Fla. Village Over Tax Hike

Retired Miami Dolphin football coach Don Shula, 80, and his wife, Mary Anne (pictured left), are suing their village because she says they can't afford a property tax increase that amounts to an additional $3,427 in annual property taxes for their $4.14 million, 13,300-square-foot Indian Creek Island home in Miami Dade County, Fla., which she acquired in her 1991 divorce from her third husband, the now deceased financier Jack Stephens.
"[Don is] on the back nine of his life [and] is unable to do talks and signings like he used to. If our taxes go up, he'll suffer," Mary Anne Shula was quoted in the Miami New Times as saying during an Indian Creek Village council meeting about the tax levy.

The amount of the increase more than likely pales in comparison to the amount of money the couple is spending on lawyers to fight the village council on the matter, not to mention the minimum $160,000 they've spent on lawyers for her on-going legal battle with her ex-step son Warren Stephens over her lifetime $1 million in annual alimony, reports Arkansas Business Journal.

But for the Shulas, and a handful of other neighbors joining them as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, this battle is about more than property taxes. It's about the haves and the have-nots among the rich and famous living in one of America's wealthiest zip codes.

The 33 residents on the exclusive 660-acre man-made island seem to be divided among those who have membership in the Indian Creek Country Club, and those who do not.

Homeownership in the 1939-incorporated village where all of the homes face the golf course and backs to Biscayne Bay does not automatically include membership to the country club, which has an initiation charge of $125,000, not including hefty annual dues. Candidates must be recommended by at least one current member and approved by 75 percent of the 15-person board of directors.

Some of the current and past multimillionaire residents have applied for membership to the country club, but were denied. Membership was denied to Marquis Bank Chairman-CEO Javier Holtz, a past village council president who still sits on the council, and to physician and council member Scott Segal.

In the club are Shula, Julio Iglesias, tennis Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz, financier Carl Icahn, and billionaire investor Charles Johnson, who recently listed his home for a whopping $32.5 million [See HousingWatch article "Miami's Most Expensive Home Lists for $32.5M"].

The village council used to be comprised mostly of club members, but as of recent years more non-members of the club occupy council seats than have previously. With the tax levy the council, in effect, showed the club that they are tired of supporting a facility that will not have them as members.

Of course village council members, as court documents show, are just trying to do its job as any city would. They want to improve the roadways (with most of that burden put on the Country Club, which says it owns the roadways), and they want homeowners to pay for the police and security forces based on a percentage of square footage or by the amount of water frontage they own. (And if they don't liens will be put on their homes.)

Historically, residents and the country club paid village property taxes based on their property's value. Under that
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formula, the $5.6 million-valued country club, had been paying just less than $30,000 to the village annually, but with the tax assessment changes passed earlier this year the Miami New Times expects it to jump to $842,315, nearly 30 times more. The levy also means that property taxes will decrease for most of the homeowners, saving them a total of about $60,000. However about four homeowners, including the Shula's, will see their property taxes increase.

Increased taxes, fees and improvements for the club also means increased dues for its members. The dues are expected to double from about $10,000 annually to nearly $21,000. So when the Shula's protest their property tax increase, they are perhaps equally concerned about their increased club dues.

To effectuate the tax assessment under Florida law, the village council reclassified the Indian Creek Village Police force as a "security service."

Currently, the Indian Creek Village Public Safety Department employs 14 sworn law enforcement officers and 4 civilian public service aides, provides law enforcement and medical services for residents and visitors of Indian Creek Village. It operates the only 24/7 marine patrol unit in the Miami area and it is often the only waterborne police force available on Biscayne Bay, according to its website.

Joining the Shula's in the lawsuit against the village are the Johnson's and blood plasma collection executive Martin Silver and his wife, Constance. Two other families withdrew from the lawsuit, including Carolyn Smathers, widow of U.S. Sen. George Smathers. The country club filed a separate lawsuit against the village.

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