Who's Afraid of Virginia Key?

In 1995 Miami voters defeated a proposal to convert a sizable chunk of Virginia Key into an eco-campground. Few of the developers, city officials, and environmentalists who bloodied each other in forums before the election, believed the vote would be the last word on the subject. The chance to cash in on one of Miami's prime waterfront properties seemed irresistible.

Sure enough, less than four years later, the battle has begun again.
Determined to have more input from the outset, activists last spring petitioned Miami commissioners for a committee to involve the public in the process of developing the key. Commissioners appointed six people to the Virginia Key Citizens Ad Hoc Advisory Committee, which began meeting this past August.

Environmentalists figured this was better than nothing. They were wrong.
The committee came up with a proposal remarkably similar to the one voters struck down. Now development opponents are looking to the past for help, enlisting the support of the black community that gave the key its identity a half-century ago. In the 1940s, when blacks were forbidden from using Miami Beach, Virginia Key was the only place where they could swim. They had to stage protests to gain the right to take a ferry to the key, as there was no causeway at the time.

In recent decades development has been piecemeal. Among the major landmarks on Virginia Key are Mast Academy, a high school for kids interested in nautical affairs; a county wastewater treatment plant; and the famed bar, Jimbo's.

Commissioners simply asked the committee to make recommendations for development on Virginia Key. City administrators steered them toward two sites. One is the marine stadium location, eighteen acres that include a decrepit 6500-seat grandstand and a 925-space parking lot. The other more controversial site is the old beach, a former county park open by permit only that windsurfers and recreationers covet.

From the beginning activists from the Sierra Club, the Urban Environment League, the South Florida Board Sailing Association, and the Friends of Virginia Key were at a disadvantage. The committee wanted only to consider business uses. Activists' arguments that the land should remain open to the public fell on deaf ears, they contend. "The direction was clearly toward commercial development," says Ginger Raspillar, a Sierra Club member who sat through many of the meetings. "It is not right to take our park land and use it to make money."

The committee hoped to mollify environmentalists by limiting the area under discussion from the 155 acres considered in 1995 to only 77 acres. They also agreed to keep the shoreline public and eliminate one of the most controversial elements of the 1995 proposal: trailer homes.

The committee rejected the activists' proposal for a charette to discuss the site's future. The reason: it would take too long. Opponents allege city officials then tried to curb public participation. Committee meetings, which were not widely publicized, were held Wednesday afternoons, which prevented most employed people from attending.

Feeling outgunned, the preservationists proposed converting the old beach into a memorial to the civil rights struggle. They obtained letters of support and interest from the Black Archives and State Rep. Frederica Wilson. Their efforts came too late. The committee wrapped up deliberations before fully considering the proposal. Members recommended that future developers hang a plaque on the site and learn about the beach's historical importance.

Of several groups that addressed the committee, one particularly seemed to catch their attention: Ecoexperience, the same company that was at the heart of the failed 1995 referendum. In mid-January Ecoexperience's president Wendall Collins, who also sits on the state's commission on ecotourism, gave a presentation on the wonders of eco-resorts. He described guests potentially plopping down between $125 and $200 to stay at an eco-resort. "It's not like going and pitching a tent and camping out," Collins says. "We are talking about having interpretation guides by people who have credentials."

Ecoexperience is owned by Arthur Hertz, who is also CEO of Wometco Enterprises, which owns Seaquarium, also located on Virginia Key. Key Biscayne residents and others have repeatedly blocked efforts to enlarge Seaquarium. This time Hertz won't be in the forefront of efforts to develop Virginia Key, he insists. To critics who question his participation, he replies: "I would hate to be as paranoid as they are."

After months of meeting, on February 16, the committee made its recommendation: an eco-resort for the old beach along the lines of the one described in Ecoexperience's presentation. "Eco-campground is not a dirty word," Dianne Johnson, a city development coordinator, told members before the vote. The following week, they advocated developing the marine stadium site into a village-style complex of shops and restaurants. The recommendations will be presented to the city's Waterfront Advisory Board on March 10.

Frustrated activists now pin their hopes on the county. In 1982 Dade County deeded the old beach to the city on the condition that the land remain a recreational area. If Miami doesn't follow its agreement, the beach should revert to the county, preservationists insist. City officials believe an eco-resort will be acceptable. County Manager Merritt Stierheim is reserving judgment until he sees the city's proposal.

"For as long as Virginia Key has been around, politicians have been trying to develop it commercially," Raspillar observes. "I guess either it will be developed or we will be continually fighting to save it. With Miami the way it is, those seem to be the [only] two options."

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein