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.

Many of them gathered at a meeting organized by the Friends of Virginia Key in early January. The Friends and almost all the others who turned out for the meeting want to curtail further development of the key. Formed six years ago and led by 67-year-old retired ecology teacher Mabel Miller, the Friends faction is bolstered by its slightly obstreperous Youth Advisory Council.

Friends member and elementary school teacher Kris Ferguson thinks some camping on the key would be beneficial, but she balks at the grandiosity of Luft's scheme. "We've been working for platform tents for middle-school campouts, with maybe a chikee type shelter," she explains. "We want something, but something different than the campground proposal. I think it's set up to fail. A year later they'll tear it down and put up what they really want."

Miller fears this is exactly what will happen with the campground's proposed water theme park. "Water parks don't do well in winter," she notes. "If it goes down, the developer cries poverty and says, 'We have to build a resort, we can't make money.' Then they can change anything they want."

The Friends are not incorporated, but rather a handful of interested parties that simply oppose construction on the island. Its youth group is also informal. And while it doesn't officially represent MAST, many of the dozens of kids who belong to the council go to school there.

One student who does not attend MAST but who has objected to further development on the key is Miami Beach High's Jordan Leonard. "If you try to put too many things on a particular piece of land," he says, "what's going to happen is you won't have the type of nature you're supposed to have there. When you rush in and put in RVs and lights, build stuff, it's not good for this delicate natural area that you should preserve, not build on. And will they want to build more if this doesn't make money? The city is losing money now, so they want to build; and later, if they're still losing money, they'll want to build more."

Eventually, opponents say, there will be no natural setting for future generations to enjoy. One Key Biscayne resident, Hugh Bicheno, a volunteer with a group called A Thousand Friends of Florida, is up in arms for a mix of reasons. "J.L. Plummer said that if the [RFP] was all or nothing, he would vote against A it is and he didn't," fumes Bicheno. "The island has been there a hell of a long time. It's something you can see from all over Miami. And they want another RV park. For the love of God, give me a break. Miami is tacky enough. When has an RV park been anything but a blight? They can think of nothing better than water slides and mini-golf?"

Friends of Virginia Key member Debbie Brandt came to the anti-campground cause indirectly. During the project to relocate the historic Brown House to Watson Island, she expressed concerns about manatees. "Jack Luft told me then that I shouldn't worry because all the manatees were over by Virginia Key," Brandt points out. "So when [the campground proposal] came up, I asked about the manatees, and Jack Luft then said that if they put in commercial guides and so forth, they know how to not hit manatees. That's hooey. There is no way they can not hit a manatee if it's in their way. No one wants to hit a manatee. If it's a campground, won't people bring little boats? Gather the kids and sandwiches and fishing rods and off we'd go. It's an island next to water, isn't that what you do? So I'm concerned about the manatees. And besides, there are so few green spaces left that the public can go to that are unmarred by development."

Sea turtles nest all along the Virginia Key shoreline from mid-April through August. Their hatchlings emerge and eventually head toward the bay in October. National Marine Fisheries Service scientist Wendy Teas studies the aquatic reptiles, and last year she documented 52 nests on the island. Currently the park area of the key closes at 6:00 p.m., which means humans should not be there after dark. With a campground, lights could be a problem for the sea turtles; people will be there all night every night, and therefore lights will be shining near the beachfront. (Campsites must be at least 50 feet from the shore, so the turtles won't be displaced by new construction, although strolling campers could disrupt the reproductive activity.)

"The lighting is the problem as far as the turtles are concerned," Teas explains. "The adults coming ashore see the light and get confused. Hatchlings go the wrong way, head inland instead of out to sea. On Key Biscayne, one turtle wound up in the middle of a ballfield. And the sheer number of people will deter the adult turtles. They're easily spooked." Teas has been a vocal opponent of Luft's plan, speaking at meetings as an individual, not a representative of National Marine Fisheries.

But Luft doesn't think the campground poses a serious concern for the turtles. "The greatest threat to sea turtles is the raccoons," he contends. "For all the public concern about turtles, it's the raccoons that are the problem. They're very aggressive. As far as the lighting, well, lights are no good for campgrounds either. Roadways will be lit with knee-level posts, and if there is lighting around bathrooms, we'll use cutoff lenses and shades. We want the place to go dark at night so it'll feel like wilderness."

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