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Members of Crossbridge Church Key Biscayne are being asked to decide whether to give up direct control of the church and land on Sunday.

They will vote on amended articles of incorporation that would consolidate power in the three-person Session consisting of Rev. Felipe Assis and two Church elders. The Session would be able to make all decisions for the Presbyterian Church, the waterfront property, as well as the beloved school on the premises, a legal expert said. 

UPDATE: The measure to rewrite the church’s corporate charter was withdrawn from a congregational vote Sunday after the Independent published this story.

Assis said in a text exchange that the proposed change is not a prelude to selling the property and he is not in talks with any developers. He referred other questions to Charles Gadala, a member of the Session.

Gadala referred questions to attorney Paul Alfieri, who said he had no comment. The other member of the Session, Erik Volavicious, could not be reached for comment. 

Gadala, in a Thursday email to members, said Crossbridge Key Biscayne will also seek changes to its relationship with the Crossbridge organization. 

Besides Key Biscayne, Crossbridge has campuses in Pinecrest, Miami Springs, Brickell and Homestead, and two campuses in Brazil.  It is constructing a very large church for its main congregation in the Pinecrest neighborhood at Gulliver Prep.

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Rev. Felipe Assis speaks at a meeting at Crossbridge Church, Key Biscayne, Sun. Dec. 3, 2023. This Sunday, church members will decide whether to hand control of the church and the property over to Assis and two elders. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church members voted in 2017 to affiliate with Crossbridge. The church has a rich history on the island — on the front lawn sits the bell U.S. President Richard Nixon rang to announce the end of the Vietnam War. The former president often attended services at the church while maintaining the unofficial Winter White House on Key Biscayne.

Attorney Jennifer Stearns Buttrick said Crossbridge leadership is not showing members the changes that are being made in the new articles of incorporation. She said she always advises her non-profit clients, when they are considering  changes to governing documents, to be transparent.

“I always advise providing redline copies, where people see exactly what they’re voting on, which is missing here,” Stearns Buttrick said. 

Many nonprofit organizations operate with a board that makes decisions but churches tend to structure themselves so membership is in control, she said.

Thom Mozloom, who was a church elder at Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church before it joined Crossbridge, said the reason the church affiliated with Presbyterian Church in America at its founding around 1970 was so members could have a vote. 

“They didn’t want to have the congregation, in a growing city, all of a sudden have the denomination or have the leadership sell the property out from under them,” he said. “That’s the exact language in the charter that they’re asking the congregation to vote to overturn now.”

The Miami-Dade Property Appraiser values the 4.7 acre bayfront property at 160 Harbor Drive, at $28 million. But the real value would come down to how many units, and at what price, would be built on the land. The church previously sold a parcel of land for what is now townhomes next door. 

The church also owns a residence at 799 Curtiswood with a market value of $2.2 million that could also be sold without a church member vote if the changes were approved Sunday. 

Anne Rothe, director of the Key Biscayne Presbyterian School owned by Crossbridge, said she has been kept in the dark on any changes or designs on the property. She said if members of the Church decide to hand over the control of the property to the Session “that would be concerning.”

 She said an assisted living facility and two charter schools previously contacted the Church to see if it was interested in entering into an agreement to allow for them to use some of its land.

She said the school, which teaches preschoolers to first grade, is a vital part of Key Biscayne where the environment and Biscayne Bay play an important role. “We are a unique program,” she said. “I’m not sure you could go off the Key and find what we do.”

Elsewhere in Miami, churches are cashing in all over.

In September, First Miami Presbyterian Church sold its 2.2 acres at 609 Brickell Ave. to a developer for $240 million. The plan calls for the Church to remain on the property next to a high-rise. Christ Journey Church in Coral Gables sold its property for $13 million to a developer last year and plans to build a new church nearby with the proceeds. 

“Churches were established early on in Miami’s history and as a result now — where we’re going as a culture as well as with development — churches aren’t relevant anymore from a development perspective,” Peter Zalewski, the founder of the real estate firm Condo Vultures, said.

“As a result, developers see an opportunity to go buy the dirt, put up a tower and then carve out some space for all of the church members,” he said.

If the bayfront property were  sold, Key Biscayne wouldn’t be able to deny zoning changes under Florida’s new Live Local Act, a Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed law designed to increase affordable housing, Zalewski added.

Francis Khan, a local resident who says Assis denied him membership in Crossbridge, has been protesting intermittently on Sunday, claiming the pastor has designs to sell the property.

“This is about a real estate land grab,” said Khan, a real estate agent.

Editor’s Note: A previous version indicated that an assisted living facility and two charters schools wanted to buy some of the land to develop. This version clarifies that they were looking to enter into agreements to use the property.

Thom Mozloom is a previous board member of Miami Fourth Estate, the umbrella organization for the Key Biscayne Independent.

JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.