Conflicts have gotten so nasty at the Miami Marine Stadium basin that the driver of a motorboat recently brandished his gun at rowers in a racing shell. He was making waves, and they asked him to stop creating a wake that could capsize their slim craft.
“It’s dangerous out there,” said Roger Bernstein, a rower who packs an oar instead of a pistol when he’s out on the water. “You’ve got the illegally anchored boats, the junk boats and the hotshots throwing wakes.
“But we are hopeful everything can be reconciled in an intelligent way.”
The basin, located off the Rickenbacker Causeway in Virginia Key, is a breathtaking but often chaotic body of water. The city of Miami and the people who use the lagoon are engaged in discussions about how to better regulate activities while preserving the beauty of the place.
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One polarizing proposal — a plan by the city to establish a 45-boat mooring field in the middle of the basin — was withdrawn from the commission meeting agenda Thursday by Commissioner Ken Russell, who scratched it not only because of the problematic and expensive details but because it’s not in the Virginia Key Master Plan.
Opponents of the mooring field, who created the Virginia Key Alliance, were relieved, but realize they have their work cut out for them in devising orderly coexistence by basin users.
“It has to be safe, regulated and available to the public,” said Bernstein, who is also a boater. “As an outgrowth of the mooring field debate, we’re actually developing a decent working relationship with the city. For the first time we have a citizen group working creatively with administration to figure this out for the good of Virginia Key.”
The basin can get crowded. It is home to the Miami Rowing Club, MAST Academy and the fenced-off, graffiti-covered marine stadium, closed since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and perpetually awaiting renovation. The Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area is adjacent to the basin, so it is home to manatees and dolphins, too.
For a week every winter (plus multiple weeks for setup and deconstruction), the Miami International Boat Show moves in and installs floating docks. The basin is used by 700 recreational watersports athletes — rowers, dragon boat teams, kayakers, paddleboarders, triathletes. There’s also a marina at its mouth, so motorboats and jet skis often intrude on the space used by those with paddles and oars. A couple of dozen sailboats are anchored in the middle, some sailed by legitimate skippers, some with irresponsible owners that end up as derelict boats — abandoned or partially submerged eyesores and navigational hazards. Sewage dumping and seagrass damage by those boats are problems the city wants to solve.
But the mooring field idea didn’t prove to be a viable solution. For one thing, it would not have prevented the continued anchoring of junk boats on its perimeter; it just would have made the basin a larger parking lot for boats.
After the city said there were no alternatives, the Virginia Key Alliance commissioned local attorney Byron Flagg to research local, state and maritime law and he came up with plenty, explained cogently in three-page and nine-page memos.
“There are at least six different ways to control the anchoring,” Bernstein said. “We need to discuss how to add a no-wake zone, how to restrict motor traffic, how to remove the pile of derelict crap in the center, prevent other derelicts from entering and where to locate the transient boats and how to provide mandatory pumpout service for them.”
Flagg suggests the city consult with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on a provision in state law and pursue an amendment that would give the basin a special designation as a “Limited Anchorage Area.” The statute identifies sections of Biscayne Bay between the Venetian Islands and the Sunset Islands as such areas.
“Local governments have at their disposal authority in current state statutes to regulate aspects of navigation, unpermitted anchoring, derelict vessels and vessels ‘at risk’ of becoming derelict,” Flagg wrote. “There are several Florida statutes that provide authority to local governments to do things that can have immediate results.”
Said Bernstein: “The best way would be passing an amendment at the state level. Everything else is a partial fix and the hit and miss of selective enforcement.”
The basin is in for more traffic soon. A weekend of powerboat and personal watercraft racing called the Miami Grand Prix of the Sea is tentatively scheduled for April 21-22, marking the return of racing at the marine stadium for the first time in 28 years. Seating would be erected in the parking lot.
“Reaching speeds in excess of 70 mph, the return of powerboat and jet ski racing to the Miami Marine Stadium is sure to bring back warm memories for many Miami residents whilst also capturing the imagination of a whole new audience who have never seen such a spectacle on Miami waters before,” says the P1 AquaX website.
The Coast Guard is reviewing how to regulate the event and has asked for public comment. Among those opposed is rower Joyce Landry.
“The area has become a sanctuary and breeding ground for Great Blue Heron, dolphins, manatees, rays, tarpon and other wildlife,” she said. “The basin should be preserved for passive water sports only.”