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.

In order to allow tour or dive boats to dock near Jimbo's, the city will have to change the zoning status of thirteen acres around Shrimper's Lagoon from "conservation" to "parks and recreation." The move seems ominous to Mabel Miller. "What we are wondering is why, if it was designated conservation and there's a reason for that, including the presence of mangroves, then why would they want to put it into another category?" she asks. "We're afraid they want to develop within that lagoon, which we think is not the better part of wisdom. That area provides manatees safe haven. We feel it would be all right for low-key activities, like canoeing and kayaking; it is a beautiful setting for that. But a floating marina dock-type thing with dive and tour boats would require something on land leading out into the water, and this would heavily impact such a small lagoon."

Luft insists that private and recreational boats will not be permitted near the key. "It will be limited access," he contends. "Otherwise it would be too disruptive to the manatees. We're talking about three or four vessels for campground residents to go fishing or tour the artificial reefs."

But Jimbo Luznar harbors concerns. "If it's canoes and paddleboats, the manatee would like that," he shrugs. "They'll rub on the bottom of the boat to scratch. But dive boats, well, those guys move pretty fast and that's a concern. My shrimp boats are very careful, because these manatees are like pets to us. We're damn careful."

Jack Luft insists the benefits of his plan outweigh any downside. "This is something that will get you out of the city emotionally and offer a wilderness experience," he says of the campground. "We can do that, amazingly enough. This doesn't impact dunes. It will be lushly landscaped. My son is a windsurfer and I've heard from the windsurfers. We put specific language into the RFP saying that the city will expect windsurfing as a major recreational activity and we'll make enhancements that encourage that. This is an opportunity to serve more people, and there's nothing preventing the ones there now from still doing what they do."

Such assurances failed to deter opponents from trying to derail the campground plan. Three days before the January 12 Miami City Commission meeting at which Luft's RFP first would be considered, the opposition gathered in the MAST cafeteria, located next to the entrance to the key's park area. Approximately 100 people, including students from MAST, an array of environmentalists, residents of neighboring Key Biscayne, Metro commissioner and former Key Biscayne resident Maurice Ferre, and outgoing chairman of the Florida Game and and Fresh Water Fish Commission Dr. Quinton Hedgepeth, showed up, peppering Luft with questions about the proposed campground for nearly two hours. Despite suffering from the flu, Luft tried his best to deflect a volley of tough questions and tougher accusations.

Opponents marshalled two additional protests, the first at the January 12 City Commission meeting at City Hall. Before the meeting got underway, a group of approximately 30 members of the Friends' Youth Advisory Council brandished placards that read "Campgrounds Pave the Road to Extinction," "Ban Key Development," and "Save Virginia Key From Corruption." Later they packed inside to continue their protest, often disrupting the proceedings once the meeting began. Almost one month later, at the February 9 commission meeting, so many people turned out to protest the proposed Virginia Key campground that police closed City Hall, forcing many who oppose the plan to wait outside while others argued their cause inside.

However, the protests failed to sway the commission. By a four-to-one vote, it gave the green light to Luft's RFP. And yet the Friends of Virginia Key's Mabel Miller remains surprisingly upbeat. "I feel great," she says, "because we're going to be right there every step of the way watching these developers and making sure they do what they're supposed to."

Jack Luft thinks the campground can't help but be a win-win situation. In his mind, everyone makes out -- the city, the campground operator, the people who'll use the facility. As for the raccoons, well, Luft says they'll be trapped and relocated, although he doesn't know where yet. "We want productive public use," he explains, "while going further down the road to restoring a disturbed environment."

Under the RFP's terms, the city will lease the property to a campground developer-operator for at least $300,000 per year, or seven percent of the annual gross revenues generated, whichever is greater. In return the developer will build, operate, and maintain the campground, pocketing any profits. Private companies have until June 16 to submit bids. At that time, a selection committee made up of five noncity individuals (including one MAST student) and four city staffers will review the proposals and select a developer. The project is expected to be completed in 1996.

During the winter off-season, only about 12 to 15 cars enter Virginia Key's park area on any given weekday, according to Fermin Alvarez, beach operations supervisor for City of Miami Parks, and perhaps 35 cars on weekends. "On windy days that goes up because of all the windsurfers," he says. "And in the summer we have very heavy use by the local community, sometimes 1000 to 1500 people on a weekend day. We're trying to get tourists to find out about this little secret because it's one of the only natural beaches left."

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