What's Next A Secession?

Key Biscayners failed this past week in their effort to snare a parcel of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Indeed, at the ripe old age of three, Dade's youngest municipality is behaving less like a toddler than like an uppity adolescent.

The Village Council had lobbied heavily for a legislative amendment that would cede fifteen acres of the state park to the city, free of charge, to be used as playing fields. The dearth of suitable sports fields for Key Biscayners' use has nettled residents for years. The only fields available to the island's soccer, flag football, softball, and baseball devotees are located on church grounds, at the island's lone single public school, and Dade County's Crandon Park. Expansion of athletic programs at the church and planned renovations of the school will further limit access to those fields, and the new master plan for Crandon Park calls for the elimination of the park's two baseball diamonds and its soccer field within the next few years.

When they attended a council meeting this past month at the village's invitation, however, Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda and interim director for Metro-Dade County Park and Recreation Department Charles Pezoldt were more than happy to suggest another possibility: the 405-acre state park at the southern tip of the island. At that very meeting, council members unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to permit Key Biscayne "to operate, maintain, and use" portions of Bill Baggs as playing fields. They soon found allies in State Senators Alberto Gutman and Ron Silver, who slipped the measure into an omnibus land-purchase bill on the Senate floor. (Silver's district includes Key Biscayne and its 8854 residents.) The bill passed, only to stall in the House, where it died as the current legislative session ended.

But the initiative didn't fizzle without a valiant, if unsuccessful, fight waged by Key Biscayners. City officials ran off more than 7000 leaflets exhorting citizens to call their congressmen in support of the amendment. Police officers, on duty and in uniform, were ordered the following day to man village street corners and pass out the pamphlets during rush hour.

Mayor John Festa says his townspeople are so desperate for playing fields they need any help they can get. Moreover, he adds, the Florida Park Service has been slow to replant Bill Baggs, which was decimated by Hurricane Andrew. "It's not to be considered a land grab but an actual helping of the community," touts Festa, pointing out that the city would be landscaping that section of the park at no expense to the state.

The Key's eleventh-hour maneuver wasn't at all popular with environmentalists and state park officials, who mobilized to protest the amendment. The proposed annexation, they argue, would set a dangerous precedent for the parceling off of state land all over Florida. "We hold the land in trust for citizens of the State of Florida, not for local interests," asserts Lee Niblock, park manager at Bill Baggs. Besides, Niblock maintains, playing fields run counter to the philosophy of the state parks system: "I don't see where developed ball fields with tall light standards play a role in the historic preservation of the natural heritage of Florida."

According to Albert Gregory, chief of park planning for Florida's Division of Recreation and Parks at the Department of Environmental Protection, local governments frequently ask the state for park-land gifts, but such requests are almost always rejected. Only once, he says, has the state ceded part of a public state park to a private entity: In the Fifties the Boy Scouts were granted 640 acres of Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County.

The search for park lands isn't the only arena in which Key Biscayners have recently flexed their newfound independence. The Village Council recently asked its city attorney to investigate the possibility of breaking away from the county public schools system. According to Richard Weiss of the firm Weiss, Serota & Helfman, which handles the village's legal work, the council also asked his firm to investigate whether the municipality could force the school board to earmark more tax dollars for the island, and whether Key Biscayne could create a school with joint funding from private entities and Metro-Dade, much like South Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, to replace the existing public school.

Key Biscayne's only public school is slated for renovation by the county. Some residents are pushing to expand the school, which currently serves 418 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, to add sixth through eighth grades. Many residents and council members complain that the municipality deserves better services from the school board, given that Key Biscayners pay more than $14 million in school taxes every year. As with other county taxes, school taxes are based on property values; the mean value of a house on the Key is $353,775, compared to a countywide mean of $112,484.

A few detractors see a disturbing pattern in the council's recent actions. "It just floors me when I hear half of these things," sighs Conchita Suarez, a Key resident who belongs to several environmental organizations. "They seem to believe that if we pay ten cents in taxes, we should get back ten cents in services. And that's not how it works in America."

"My God, what direction is this island going?" wonders another longtime Key resident who requested anonymity for fear her unpopular stance might jeopardize her commercial business on the island. "These issues are indicative of the way people are thinking out here.


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