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.

He expects the campground to be state of the art, a modern attraction set in natural ruins. "We have this wonderful environment in the heart of the city," Luft says. "And we can make it a better place." Luft's vision includes clean, properly maintained, supervised beaches open to the public. Maybe a few freshwater swimming pools, maybe a water theme park (or, as he prefers to call it, a "recreational swimming facility"). Basketball, tennis, volleyball courts. Playgrounds. Child care and indoor kids activities. Hiking and bike trails. An amphitheater with a stage and fixed seating. Trams and shuttles. Diving and fishing tour boats with accompanying dockage. A mini-golf course. Food and beverage concessions. Restrooms and pay phones and laundry machines. Trailer storage. And those 500 campsites. Luft even wants the RV sites to be hooked up for cable TV.

"Imagine getting off work on a Friday afternoon," he says. "If you're going to drive to a recreational campground in a natural environment, simply getting back and forth will take most of the weekend. With Virginia Key, you're there in five minutes. You can call ahead and have your trailer taken out of storage. You get there in the evening, maybe bring a bottle of wine and a good book. And now you have your whole weekend to spend in this wonderful, natural environment."

On the northeast part of the island, down a dirt path next to the sewer plant, a model shoot is taking place at Jimbo's, the rustic headquarters of James "Jimmy the Shrimper" Luznar, the uncrowned king of Virginia Key's handful of residents. Manatees favor the lagoon at Jimbo's -- known variously as Lamar Lake, Duck Lake, and Shrimper's Lagoon -- and sea turtles nest on these shores. A few gulls tarry on the rocky sand. Two pelicans fly overhead.

Mayor Clark also favors the spot, sitting with the afternoon beer drinkers and grizzled storytellers at Jimbo's. Within spitting distance is a tableau often used as a setting for fashion shoots: Brightly painted shacks and a psychedelic school bus mix with crippled cars, dogs of assorted shapes and sizes, a few immobile RVs, and Jimbo's headquarters, a small building with a bocce court on one side and tanks for live bait shrimp on the other. There's a smoker for fish, and chunks of marlin and fillets of salmon are for sale inside, right next to wooden barrels filled with ice and beer and soda. Vice mayor J.L. Plummer says he sometimes visits to eat Jimbo's smoked fish.

Luznar, proprietor and veteran shrimper, sits next to hizzoner on the patio, sipping RC Cola and regaling the others with his colorful analyses of everything from shrimp migration to how the canal system has ruined the redfish population. Luznar came to the area almost 40 years ago, setting up a shrimping operation where the Miami Herald building now sits. When the Herald bought that property in the mid-Fifties, Luznar moved over to Virginia Key. Between the games of bocce he never seems to lose, Luznar, wiry and spry and full of vigor at age 67, recalls the time 25 years ago that a manatee washed into the lagoon, a gaping hole, surely cut by some boat, crippling the animal. Two calves swam at the injured sea cow's side. He patiently nursed the big mammal back to health, running to the grocery store for lettuce and cabbage to supplement its sea-vegetation diet.

"We get manatees in here all the time," Luznar says. "You'll see seven and eight at a time." One regular visitor is the old mama manatee whose life he saved long ago. "Yessir, she comes in every year. When I found her she laid out there [in the lagoon] for two months, with two babies. And she'd just roll over to where the babies could nurse. She comes back every year and she has babies with her every time, always two. She's good and healthy."

Over on the east side of the key, beyond a NO TRESPASSING sign where the public part of the beach area ends, rests a solitary man on a chaise longue. Three women and a baby emerge from a sedan parked near a grassy area studded with built-in barbecue grills and picnic tables. They watch the crystalline waters tiding up between the boulder jetties (known as groins) that segment the beach every 20 or 30 yards. A park worker chases two anglers from their fishing spot at the end of one of the jetties, while a young couple strolls the sand, beachcombing on the rocky shoreline. If they were to walk the entire beachfront, they'd reach the key's northern tip, where they would face the red-tiled buildings and cranes (machines, not birds) of Fisher Island, with the Port of Miami, right beyond Fisher, just a quick skiff ride across Norris Cut.

Welcome to Jack Luft's "wonderful, natural environment" A pre-campground. Of course not everyone shares Luft's vision. Some people think the impending development of Virginia Key, even a campground, stinks as much as the island's sewage treatment plant. They contend that birds, dunes, mangroves, and possibly even a buried prehistoric archaeological site will be killed or destroyed by the project.

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."

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."

Until the 1830s, when a hurricane ripped through the area and created Norris Cut (the water that separates Virginia Key's north shore from Fisher Island), Alvarez's little secret was part of Miami Beach and the rest of the South Florida mainland. The east coast of the key is delineated by Bear Cut, notorious for its ripping currents. It remained undeveloped, in its primordial state, until construction of the Rickenbacker Causeway began in the 1940s; that came to a halt when World War II created a shortage of building materials. During the war, German submarines patrolled Biscayne Bay, and a Nazi U-boat torpedoed a 7500-ton Mexican oil tanker right off Virginia Key in May 1942; it burned spectacularly within eyesight of the mainland.

Three years later, the county tapped Virginia Key Beach as a place for "Negroes" to swim. For two decades, blacks had been expressing a fervent desire to be allowed to swim in the ocean, but were forbidden by law from doing so. On Sundays groups of blacks would visit Haulover area beaches in hopes of being arrested, thereby forcing the issue to be taken up by the courts. Dade County government wanted to avoid such a showdown, so on August 1, 1945, the beach area on Virginia Key was set aside as a swimming spot for Miami's black population. Because the Rickenbacker Causeway still was under construction (it eventually opened in 1947), black beachgoers were required to take a ferry to the key from an embarkation point on the Miami River at Northwest Fifth Street and Seventh Avenue. According to former Miami News editor and local author-historian Howard Kleinberg, blacks were charged 65 cents, plus a 15-percent tax, for the round-trip ferry ride. In the 1960s, desegregation opened all beaches to blacks, and Virginia Key's popularity decreased.

Miami-Dade Community College history professor Paul George recalls that Virginia Key was marked for development as early as the 1930s. "There was serious talk of building a municipal airport there," he explains. "And in the Fifties there was talk of making it part of the Port of Miami. But instead, Key Biscayne was developed, and Virginia sort of became a natural preserve."

He remembers partying there as a youth in the early and mid-Sixties, when the place was nicknamed Sewer Beach. Rock -- and much later rap -- concerts were sometimes staged on the beach. Miami Marine Stadium was built, and by 1970 it was drawing huge crowds to religious services and concerts and boat races. Up to the beginning of the Eighties, parts of the Virginia Key beach area were favored by nudists; later, gays claimed it. Dunes were torn up by people riding all-terrain vehicles there, until police were called in to put a stop to the illegal activity. (The park area was unregulated until 1985.)

The idea to develop the key's eastern shoreline originated in 1981 when the county deeded the Virginia Key beach property to the city in exchange for land on Lummus Island near the Port of Miami (the city already owned much of the key). A public campground was suggested at the time, but the city was too broke to fund such an ambitious project.

In 1986 the Rickenbacker was widened, and a year later Luft prepared a master plan for Virginia Key, reviving the campground notion. Still, there was no way to pay for its construction from public funds. Five years later Hurricane Andrew had its say in the key's fate.

Trees downed by Hurricane Andrew only recently were removed from the island. Initial clean-up work was paid for in the amount of $340,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "We're finalizing the FEMA portion [of the cleanup]," explains Dianne Johnson, a coordinator for the City of Miami's Department of Development. "Then a biological assessment will be done in the more sensitive areas by a biologist we'll hire, and we'll work with DERM [state Department of Environmental Resources Management] for long-range restoration. All this will take a couple of years."

More than a million dollars in state funding will pay for removing exotic pest species such as the Australian pine and Florida holly that have taken root on the key. Approximately ten percent of that money has been earmarked for beach renourishment along 3000 feet of shoreline in the public beach area. These efforts are expected to be completed by the end of this year, with an herbicide program to eliminate pest species continuing beyond that time. Luft's proposal calls for the campground construction to be integrated into the clear-out project.

So Virginia Key enters its last few months as one of the city's last relatively unspoiled refuges. On a recent morning, its inland shoreline is not particularly messy, marred only by a few plastic bottles and a Snickers wrapper found among the trees in the hardwood hammock. An assortment of abandoned apparel, shirts and pants, adorns the crevices of the boulders that form the jetties jutting into the water. The rocky northern tip of the island is strewn with garbage, but the beach areas are relatively free of debris. The raccoons do what they can to eliminate the trash.

This summer, when the creamy sands become crowded with beachgoers, the sounds of gulls crying and breezes rattling through jungle will be replaced by the hubbub of development A the building of the campground. And some months after that, Virginia Key will be a different place for generations to come.

Jimbo Luznar spits a bit of tobacco from his cigar as he finishes a game of bocce. He doesn't worry about the campground affecting his ancient operation. "Basically they're going to use the area across the other side of the lake down to Bear Cut," he says. "At least that's what the mayor tells me. As far as I know they're not going to mess with this site. I think it'll be all right."

MDCC professor Paul George isn't so sure. "I'm familiar with the campground proposal, and I'll tell you, I'm a naturalist, so I hate to see something like that," he says, shaking his head and pausing for thought. "There's so little nature left.

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