May 13, 2014

State OK’s development on Miami’s Watson Island

Despite opposition from environmentalists and some Miami-Dade residents, the Florida Cabinet paved the way for a mega marina on Miami’s Watson Island.

The long-stalled plans to build a mega-yacht marina on Miami’s Watson Island may finally lurch forward.

On Tuesday, the Florida Cabinet approved changes to the deed that governs development on the island.

The move paves the way for developers to break ground on the marina project, which also includes two hotels and a retail center.

The members of the Cabinet — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — did not discuss the measure before giving their unanimous support.

They did, however, hear strong opposition from some environmentalists and Miami-Dade County residents.

“It is undeniably a giveaway of a prized public asset to generate huge profits for a private development while the city reaps very small rewards,” Stephen Herbits, a former government consultant from Miami-Dade, wrote in a letter.

Voters first approved plans to develop Watson Island in 2001. But the developer Flagstone said the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks and economic downturn stalled the project.

There was new momentum last year after Jorge Perez’s Related Group of Florida and Stephen Ross’ Related Companies announced that they would partner on the project.

The partnership was short-lived. Miami Beach residents complained about the potential impact on traffic and the environment, and the superstar developers pulled out.

Flagstone decided to push forward anyway, but needed some modifications to the deed.

Similar changes were approved in 2004 and 2011.

The Miami City Commission agreed to the deed modification in a 4-0 vote last week. The state was required to give final approval.

In his letter to the Cabinet, Herbits said Watson Island should be used for public purposes.

“Watson Island is the last great parcel of undeveloped waterfront property serving the urban core,” he said. “It was deeded to the city by the state for public or municipal purposes. With massive development in downtown Miami since the project was initiated in 2001, the rationale for using this great public space for private development of hotels and retail activity has completely changed.”

Herbits also noted that the city was charging the developers rent based on 10-year-old property appraisals.

The annual rent, which is set at $2 million plus a portion of retail and hotel-room sales, would have exceeded $7 million had more-recent appraisals been used in the calculation, Herbits said.

Environmentalists voiced additional concerns at Tuesday’s meeting.

Laura Reynolds of the Tropical Audubon Society said Miami officials ought to conduct new ecological studies to make sure the project would not harm the surrounding plants and wildlife.

But Alice Bravo, Miami’s deputy city manager, said the developers had all of the environmental permits needed to move forward.

She said the project would provide a boost to Miami’s economy.

“To us, this is probably our greatest public-private partnership that we’ve embarked on,” Bravo said. “We are very fortunate that our partner has made it through many trials and tribulations and stuck with us through this point.”

Flagstone plans to break ground on the marina by June 2, lobbyist Brian May said.

If the project does not get underway, some city commissioners have said they would be willing to consider other developers.

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