View of the Miami skyline from Virginia Key.
View of the Miami skyline from Virginia Key.

Virginia Key's Marina Expansion Would Leave Kayakers and Dragon Boat Racers Without Safe Territory

For paddle sport enthusiasts like Sunny McLean, Miami should be a paradise — surrounded by water and blessed with year-round warm weather. But paradoxically, finding a safe place for sports such as dragon boat racing and kayaking in the 305 is difficult. In fact, the waters off Virginia Key are some of the only reliable spots.

“I do all the watersports I can get myself into,” says McLean, who is a member of a local dragon boat team. “Virginia Key is a wonderful place for all Miamians to use. It allows us to enjoy sports we wouldn’t be able to do out in the bay.”

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But McLean and the hundreds of other paddle sport enthusiasts who frequent Virginia Key worry that soon could change. As the City of Miami Commission votes today on a contentious plan to expand the Rickenbacker and Miami Marine Stadium marinas on the key, they say local paddlers stand to lose their terrain.

With hundreds of new dock slips on the island, powerboats would invade the upper half of the Virginia Key basin, McLean says, leaving paddlers with no place to hide.

“Up to now, this area has been protected,” McLean says. “It is one of the only places left for us to safely enjoy [our sports], where big boats can’t swamp us out.”

The plan set in place for the marina is one of the city’s most contentious bids. In April, Mayor Tomás Regalado backed a proposal from RCI Group to mastermind a $100 million plan to build a new dry dock, an automated storage system, and a two-story complex of restaurants and stores just off the Rickenbacker Causeway.

A fight looms at city hall today over complaints that the bidding process was mishandled. Next Thursday's meeting will determine if protesters can move forward with their own complaints against RCI. Environmentalists also have a long list of concerns about the project after the Miami Boat Show occupied this space last year and, critics say, disrupted the marine ecosystem. Their objections take into consideration the problems the new traffic would introduce.

But McLean says paddlers have been lost in this political argument. Virginia Key’s transformation could turn a quiet nature site into a profitable retail complex. Though most people are in favor of developing meaningful waterfront spaces, the controversy lies in how it can be done.

“It all comes back to the Virginia Key Master Plan,” McLean argues, “which was previously approved by the commission but has been ignored by the different bidders. This plan showed a concern for environmental issues and for keeping the area safe for sports in the environment, even passive water sports.”

Joyce Landry, a member of McLean’s dragon boat team, agrees with McLean concerning the flaws of RCI’s plan.

“The city should never have allowed this bid to go forward with all its amendments, especially after the commission approved the Virginia Key Master Plan with a 5-0 vote in 2008," Landry says. "It is unacceptable for the city to throw away the work we have put in.”

McLean hopes to rally support from the paddling community at Thursday's meeting. They'll push the city to see the marina as an invaluable piece of peaceful water rather than a lost opportunity to make money.

Their end goal is to keep Miami Marine Stadium free of any extensive marinas or moorings so that Miamians of all ages and fitness capacities can continue to practice their watersports in peace.

“On any given Saturday, there will be about 50 of us out in the water,” Landry says, “people in their youth or as old as 80. If this plan goes through, there is nowhere else we can go. We’ve looked, but there is no place in South Florida that offers us the same protection of the mangroves and no wake. We would be gone.”

RCI Group didn't immediately respond to a message from New Times for comment.

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