Miami Beach, Coast Guard agree to work on yacht traffic problem

01/15/2014 11:29 AM

01/15/2014 5:06 PM

The city of Miami Beach and the Coast Guard are backing efforts by local boaters aimed at preventing a nautical blockade on Biscayne Bay before the boat shows come to town next month.

A meeting is scheduled for Friday afternoon in the city manager’s office with legal staff and boating experts to discuss possible court action aimed at halting an environmental project underway just north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

A contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers, preparing to plant sea grass in a 16-acre area to mitigate PortMiami expansion, has erected pilings and silt curtains that squeeze a deep channel used by large yachts to reach their berths in Indian Creek for the annual Yacht & Brokerage Show.

Captain Dan Kipnis, chair of the Miami Beach Marine Authority, Coast Guard Station commanding officer Lt. Michael Cortese, and Miami Beach Marine Patrol Sgt. Luis Sanchez all say the project could cause some skippers of big yachts to run aground and potentially cause a pile-up.

“My biggest concern is the possibility of increased search and rescue cases and groundings captains might experience,” Cortese said.

Kipnis says removing the pilings that line the unmarked channel is the best recourse. But so far, the Corps is not budging.

Laurel Reichold, project manager for the PortMiami expansion, acknowledges there’s a small area along the 1½-mile channel about 40 to 50 feet wide and about 12 feet deep that could “pinch” some of the largest yachts making their way east from the Intracoastal Waterway to Indian Creek. She recommends only one big yacht transit that area at a time. Most of the channel, Reichold said, is about 100 feet wide and averages 15 feet deep.

“We think we’ve adequately maintained a corridor,” she said. “We had a meeting with yacht pilots last week, and they said they were able to get through it just fine.”

Reichold likened the situation to road construction where drivers must slow down and anticipate delays. Halting the project and removing the pilings from the restoration area, she added, would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“At this point, that’s not a fiscally responsible decision,” she said.

Meanwhile, Andrew Doole, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Show Management, which runs the Yacht & Brokerage Show, says his company has hired a marine surveyor to inspect the site Thursday evening. Doole said he wants to make sure the corridor can handle up to 500 yachts to 150 feet long expected in the next couple of weeks.

“We’re obviously concerned,” Doole said.

He said if the surveyor determines there are problems with the channel, then his company will hire extra tugboats to tow the yachts part way to the show site, and skippers will be encouraged to approach from the north on high tide instead of coming from the south under the Tuttle bridge.

Kipnis is pushing for Miami Beach to go to court to force the Corps to take down the pilings before the show, which runs Feb. 13-17.

“The only way to move the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is if a judge tells them they have to do that,” Kipnis said.

Miami Beach assistant city manager Joe Jimenez said possible legal action will be discussed at Friday’s meeting.

“Obviously, we’ve had the boat show here forever. We’ll do whatever we can to help,” Jimenez said. “You don’t have to be a boater to know what an economic engine the boat show is. We want to protect it.”

Kipnis and Cortese say a more permanent solution would be to designate and mark the waterway as a permanent navigable channel. It was dredged to build the causeway decades ago but does not appear on navigational charts.

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