Miami-Dade County

Jimbo’s quirky fish shack may be gone, but what’s left is now a battleground

A view of Jimbo's lagoon

The secluded cove once occupied by the old Jimbo's fish house and watering hole on Virginia Key is now a tranquil spot for paddlers and mountain bikers. Environmentalists and park activists are at odds with city of Miami officials over constructio
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The secluded cove once occupied by the old Jimbo's fish house and watering hole on Virginia Key is now a tranquil spot for paddlers and mountain bikers. Environmentalists and park activists are at odds with city of Miami officials over constructio

The famous and colorful Jimbo’s smoked-fish shack and watering hole on Virginia Key has been gone five years now. At the secluded cove that the late Jimbo Luznar occupied semi-legally for 50 years, all that remains of one of Miami’s quirkiest places is a jagged, crumbling seawall and a rotting wooden dock.

Now there’s a brewing tussle between the city of Miami and environmentalists and park activists over what to do with what could well be the prettiest little spot in all Miami, and that old seawall is at the center of it.

Since Jimbo’s shack was razed, the tranquil, mangrove-ringed lagoon near the north end of the publicly owned island has become popular with kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders, and a prime spot for manatee viewing.

The city, acting on longstanding plans, wants to improve the upland site once home to Jimbo’s shack — to the tune of $2.8 million. That means a rebuilt seawall, paved walkways, a new kayak and canoe launch, and a new dock. Backers of the plan say the old seawall is unsafe, and the new facilities would ensure public access while maintaining the cove’s low-key natural ambience.

But to parks advocates like Blanca Mesa, that all sounds like “overkill.”

Mesa and some fellow members of the Virginia Key Advisory Board, a volunteer panel that advises the city, complain that officials never consulted with them in drawing up their plan. And now they want the plan scotched for something quite different and, they contend, far cheaper — a “living shoreline” that emulates nature and attracts wildlife. That alternative would also include an improved launch for kayaks and canoes.

The critics say they fear that a dock and lots of shoreline improvements, though intended for non-motorized watercraft, would lure jet-skiers and motorboats into the quiet lagoon, chasing off birds, fish and manatees and spoiling the ambience.

Matters may come to a head at the board’s June 27 meeting, when members will vote on a resolution asking the city to pull the plug on the plan. Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the island, has said he’s willing to follow the board’s lead.

The seawall issue is only the latest disagreement between the city and environmentalists over the future of the naturally rich but environmentally compromised island, which is bisected by the Rickenbacker Causeway and is also home to a large sewage-treatment plan near the former Jimbo’s site.

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After a fire in one of the trailers at Jimbo’s on Virginia Key. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald File/2009

They’re already at odds over plans to redevelop a marina at the entrance to Virginia Key and the adjacent Miami Marine Stadium area.

And the seawall set-to may portend a far larger battle just down the road from Jimbo’s lagoon. Miami-Dade County is about to launch a long-delayed plan to properly seal an old, festering landfill. Once that’s done, the city has long planned to build sports fields on top. Virginia Key activists say they hope to limit the extent of the athletic facilities because the landfill is located between a state natural preserve on the island’s west side and a restored beach eco-system on its east.

All Jimbo’s lagoon really needs, critics of the city plan say, is a soft shoreline of sand, rock and native plants that would cover the old seawall, providing a natural look and function at a fraction of the cost of new steel and concrete. But they say the city did not consider alternatives before drawing up its blueprint and applying for grants to help fund it.

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General view of the old Jimbo's watering hole photographed on Saturday, June 3, 2017. Roberto Koltun

At a board meeting last month, Joan Browder, a biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service on the key, said the cove site is ideal for a living shoreline project. It would filter runoff into the lagoon, require less maintenance than a seawall, provide wildlife habitat and better protect the shoreline from erosion, she said.

“It doesn’t need a seawall,” said biologist and advisory board member Gary Milano, a former county environmental official who worked extensively on Virginia Key shoreline restoration. “We’ve got this quiet little cove, a great opportunity to provide living shoreline concepts. It’s not even being entertained.

“That area deserves the best we can do. It’s one of those unique settings you don’t find anywhere in the county.”

The city says it needs to move quickly because the seawall is a hazard and a deadline is quickly approaching for grant decisions from a chief source of funding for the job, the Florida Inland Navigation District, a state agency that helps pay for shoreline improvements along the Intracoastal Waterway. The city has applied for a $1 million grant from FIND, which will decide on all applications from across the state at its June 16 annual meeting.

The local FIND commissioner, Spencer Crowley, said rebuilding the seawall now does not preclude a living shoreline, which can be added later. But Crowley, who supports the city’s grant application and has worked on living shoreline projects elsewhere in South Florida, said killing the plan now makes no sense. Crowley noted the upland Jimbo’s site, where the old seawall is, covers only a small piece of the lagoon’s shoreline, most of which would remain in its natural state.

“It’s not safe for people to be there and to walk around on the seawall,” he said. “They need to get the seawall done and then build the shoreline. No one is debating the benefit of a living shoreline.”

City parks director Kevin Kirwin said he’s willing to compromise by scaling down the rest of the project. But he insisted the new seawall is a must. A risk-management adviser has already recommended that the area be fenced off because of the potential hazards, he said.

“If that seawall fails, then that’s a big issue,” Kirwin said. “But we can do a bare-bones plan, and then take a look at making this a living shoreline. It might be a different thing if we had a living shoreline plan we could look at right now.”

At last month’s advisory board hearing, several members of the public favored the living shoreline idea in place of a new seawall.

“We are creating a kind of artificial area with a seawall, which is not what canoers and kayakers go to see,” said Sunny McClain of Coral Gables. “If [a living shoreline] is cheaper, more beautiful and it meets the public needs, it is a win-win.”