Treasured Isle

This time next year an RV campground will occupy Virginia Key. Say sayonara to one of the city's last patches of green.

A paved two-lane street called Arthur Lamb Jr. Road snakes through the 1000-acre island known as Virginia Key, veering here and there as it nears the public beach area at its farthest eastern coordinate from Rickenbacker Causeway. At one point, the road empties into a small parking lot. Nearby a lifeguard stand sprouts from the French-vanilla-colored sands.

At the terminus of another pathway to the beach area, public service aid J. Green of the City of Miami Police Department has braked his cruiser. On this particular balmy weekday afternoon, no humans are in sight, although a mere five minutes away thousands of people in the skyscrapers of downtown Miami are voice-mailing and power-lunching their way through another day. Green stands alone at the point where pavement meets sand. Mostly he patrols the Brickell area, he says, but makes the short drive from downtown via the Rickenbacker to swing by the park. He's fiddling with a small plastic bag, tossing ocher and maroon pellets onto the ground at his feet. "I try to stop by and make sure everything's okay," Green explains. "And to feed the raccoons."

While the three adult raccoons clacking and clamoring at his feet as they chomp on the morsels he hands out aren't quite tame, they're hardly shy. Some might even call them aggressive. In fact, up the road, where it splinters, two dozen 'coons rush any car that slows down. A pair of cats, a long-haired black one and a larger orange one, watch from the bushes. PSA Green hops in his patrol car and rolls back to Brickell's concrete canyon.

Owned for the most part by the City of Miami, Virginia Key offers acres of wilderness within eyesight of downtown. The island itself, proclaimed an urban paradise by both developers and ecologists, boasts critical habitat, much of it endangered. The key's coastal hammock is one of the few left in the area, and the mangroves here that survived Hurricane Andrew are protected by law. Mosquito fish, gambusia rhizophorae, can be found only in South Florida mangrove channels such as Virginia Key's. Sand dunes are part of the key's importance as a barrier island, with plants such as the burrowing four o'clock, necklace pod, and sea lavender helping to protect the dunes on which they grow. Windsurfers also have found a home here A they consider the key one of the top ten windsurfing spots in the nation.

And yet it's probably unfair to expect the island to live up to the "urban paradise" tag. For one thing, Arthur Lamb serves mainly as an access road for trucks going to and from the 115-acre Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of Dade County's three sewage-processing facilities; being a sewer plant, it tends to stink up the whole island. For another, much of the key's precious hardwood hammock still lies ravaged as a result of Andrew. Exotic vines and intertwining flora have found a home among the organic rubble left behind by the August 1992 hurricane. More of the same can be found in the key's northwest sector, where vines bearing purple flowers and other new growth drape the brown splinters that were healthy trees three years ago.

"It has a highly disturbed environment," allows Jack Luft, the City of Miami's assistant director-planner for the Department of Development. "It's been dredged, bulldozed, filled.... We've done everything we could to it." He also mentions that the city can't afford to maintain the key properly. Luft, who looks something like a primped version of actor Howard Hesseman, considers Virginia Key (the first of two large islands accessible from the Rickenbacker, the other being Key Biscayne) an "extraordinary opportunity."

The odd shaped key, with two large land juts on its west side, one of which is traversed by the Rickenbacker, is home to the Miami Marine Stadium, the Miami Seaquarium, the National Marine Fisheries Service building, the Dade Marine Institute, the Maritime and Science Technology high school (MAST), and the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Approximately 25 percent of the island has been developed.

That figure is about to change. On February 9, the City of Miami Commission (Mayor Stephen Clark and four city commissioners) voted four to one in favor of pursuing the "opportunity" described by Luft when it approved his Request for Proposals (RFP) to allow a private developer to build a commercial campground on 153.82 acres of the island at a cost of not less than two million dollars. Commissioner Miller Dawkins cast the lone dissenting vote. Dawkins, who ran for office more than a decade ago on a "Don't Develop Watson Island" platform, made his opposition to the RFP clear: "I want your children and your grandchildren to know what open space looks like."

More than a year ago, Luft sketched his Virginia Key vision on a napkin during a meal at Pi's Place in downtown Miami. As he drew out his plan, he had to keep unfolding the napkin to give himself more space. The final version, the one detailed in the RFP, calls for 500 campsites capable of accommodating RVs, trailers, fixed-platform tents, cabins, soft tents, and ancillary facilities.

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