Parks and Profits

Believe it or not, Miami's planning czar Jack Luft says he can make Virginia Key both lovely and lucrative

Why not just leave this land alone?
Because it's an 80-acre battered and environmentally barren piece of ground that is not going to mushroom into a primeval forest by itself. It's a complete wreck. Something has to be done. Do we want to spend a lot of money replanting the area just to build a forest for the raccoons? Or can we do it and put it to a public recreational use? If we can do it in a way that combines an economically viable use with an environmentally friendly restoration of the site, I think it's a win-win. That's why the eco-campground is built around the fundamental concept of revegetating and restoring the site.

Why not simply bank it and create a nice public park later, when the city has the money?

What's to be gained by waiting? I'm not now or in the future going to project that it's going to be a simple thing to go to the taxpayers and say we need six million dollars to do it.

Doesn't the city's master plan call for a constellation of buildings and facilities?

There's probably a half-dozen buildings here already. There will be several more, if you count the laundry and the general store. There will be shelters for group camping, cabins. If you count eco-tents, which I hesitate to call buildings.

What is an eco-tent?
An eco-tent is a raised platform that has a tent and a wood-frame roof. It's a little tepeelike structure covered with canvas. It's got a little porch on the front. It has built-in beds and a little counter with a sink. You carry your water inside. It has a lightbulb. It may or may not have a solar panel. It probably doesn't have running water. It's probably linked to other eco-tents by a raised boardwalk in native-plant areas.

To many people this plan, eco-tents included, will sound familiar. In fact, it sounds just like the proposal voters rejected two years ago. How can the city propose building this campground again?

It went to the public and the public said no. There are those who say, "Well, isn't that the end of it? We've put it to the test and the public said no, so that should be the death of that." What went to the voters was a specific lease for a specific development with a specific set of partners for a specific plan. We did not say: "Are you in favor of a campground per se?" I go back to the Virginia Key master plan of 1982, which also had a lot of public input.

Few people know or care about what the original master plan says. They are more concerned that the public retain the use of the beach, that sensitive plants and trees will be preserved, that turtles and manatees will be protected. But you're talking about reviving the essentials of a plan that environmentalists opposed in the first place.

It won't be the same because it won't be the same amount of land to start with. It will be cut in half. Instead of 154 acres it will be 80. Frankly, the concern of the developers was "You're passing off to me a liability. Now I've got to maintain a public swimming beach, I've got to maintain and restore the hardwood hammock, then I have to maintain the picnic area." What we said was: "That's the price you pay for the campground." We thought it was a good deal for the public. But there were some people who were fearful of having that [public] area under private lease. Now we've said: "Take that out of the campground. Say it's a public park, and leave it out." The city could take the profits from the campground and maintain the beach.

But many in the public -- environmentalists, Key Biscayne residents, windsurfers who use the beach -- want to preserve this island as it is.

When you divorce this from developers and leases and commercial terms, and you just say: "Does it make sense to have, for the benefit of the people of this community, a publicly accessible campground done in an ecologically sensitive way on an oceanfront where none exists in Dade County," the very strong majority response I get is "Yes, that makes a lot of sense. What a wonderful idea."

Have you actually surveyed public opinion about this?
When we look at the state recreation plan and the county's surveys and studies on public demand for recreational facilities -- the fastest-growing demands -- camping is coming out high on that list. The state recreational open-space master plan and the Dade County master plan have long-range surveys and public-opinion analyses of trends, where the needs are. One of the biggest needs in this area is camping facilities.

But you're not talking only about a campground. What other plans do you have?

You add to that what I believe will be a sea camp on a five-acre tract [within the campground]. The sea camp could have pavilions with classrooms in them; it would have kitchens and dormitories woven into the whole campground area here. During the summer months, you would have youth groups; we would probably work with the school system. You would make that kind of sea-camp experience available to kids on a three-, four-, five-, six-day basis. It's classic.

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