Virginia Key can’t seem to escape its past as a trash dump.
This time around it’s only temporary, though, as a patch of land by the lagoon and mountain bike trails is used as a collection site for debris and trash left over from Hurricane Irma.
But the 20-foot tall hills of junk stand in jarring contrast to the surrounding parkland that was beautified only after years of environmental advocacy and volunteer muscle restored it from neglected space adjacent to the city’s sewage treatment plant and the old, contaminated 125-acre landfill into one of Miami’s most popular recreational oases.
“There’s all kinds of nasty stuff in there,” said Allyson Betancourt, manager of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, which is struggling with a sharp decline in customers. She gestured at mounds marbled with mattresses, recliners, appliances and shoes. “It smells like a combination of wet dog and old garbage. The few people who come in, see it and ask, ‘What is this, a dump? Why is it here, of all places?’”
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The city said it had few options as it hurried to clear streets after the Sept. 10 storm and has to use the property on the key during its cleanup of 700,000 cubic yards of debris. The city’s designated vegetation mulching site is on the other side of the plant in its northwest corner.
“It’s a disgrace,” said mountain biker David Knorr of Key Biscayne, who was riding the recently reopened trails on Monday. He was one of 800 volunteers who devoted many hours over four weekends to clearing and repairing the trails after Irma mauled them with toppled trees. “I don’t like it because if you call it a park it should be a park, not a dumping site.”
Cyclists and runners are upset that the key’s main park road remains closed to recreational users as a safety precaution because of the trash-hauling truck traffic. Two city police cars are posted at the entrance to block anyone coming in by bike or foot. Beachgoers can drive in and park at the beach. Mountain bikers can drive in and park by the trails, but the large lot has been reduced to a small one by the huge debris piles — with the advantage that there is no charge for parking until further notice.
“It is a regrettable eyesore and nose sore,” said Frenchy Riviere, vice president of the Virginia Key Bicycle Club and designer of the trails. He and Mack Cycle and Fitness owner Mary Jane Mark were among the main drivers of the original vision to turn 50 acres of waterfront landfill into a mountain biking course. “But it is going away. First they hauled it in. Now they’re hauling it out.”
The cleanup is expected to be finished by Thanksgiving, said Mario Nunez, the city’s director of Solid Waste. Betancourt said she was told it could take four months.
The Virginia Key site has been a part of Miami’s debris management plan since 2008, Nunez said, and was chosen because of its 13-acre size, as well as its non-residential location and its compliance with FEMA and National Environmental Policy Act regulations.
The city has another incentive: The Feb. 15-19 Miami International Boat Show at Miami Marine Stadium uses the area for storage and staging.
In the meantime, the number of visitors is way below average even though the park is in good post-hurricane shape, including the lagoon area that used to be home to Jimbo’s smoked-fish and bait shack and is now a prime spot for kayaking and paddleboarding. On a gorgeous Monday, no one was paddling and only three cars were in the mountain biking lot.
“The police cars at the entrance, with lights flashing, totally discourage people from coming into the park,” said Betancourt, who rents bikes, kayaks and paddleboards and sells food at the center. “People think it’s closed. This has gone from a park where you’d see lots of cyclists and paddlers around all day to just a handful. We are down to one eighth to one quarter of our normal business. On Sunday, when we often have a line out the door, we had maybe a half dozen rentals.”
Out back, she pointed to one of the byproducts of constant truck traffic gouging the grass and dirt lot — a large puddle of standing gray water that has run down a slope from the trash piles.
“It’s a mud pit, probably a toxic one,” she said. “And who knows what is leaking into the soil. It’s a tough situation here.”
Said Knorr: “At least we are happy to be riding again. We made something out of nothing, so we know once the trash is out of here that we can make it nice again.”