Miami-Dade County

Key Biscayne launches anti-Ultra campaign before Miami vote on Virginia Key move

If Ultra Music Festival organizers thought they had difficult neighbors in downtown Miami, they’ll get a whole new headache if they move to Virginia Key.

The village of Key Biscayne’s government has launched an all-out assault on the electronic music festival days before Miami commissioners are scheduled to vote to on whether to move it to Virginia Key, which is within Miami’s city limits but on the only road to Key Biscayne.

On Thursday, Miami elected officials will consider approving a licensing agreement to allow organizers to stage the three-day festival in two locations on Virginia Key: the park next to the Miami Marine Stadium and in Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.

Ultra is in search of a new home after commissioners rejected a contract to keep the event in Bayfront Park, an ouster fueled by mounting noise and traffic complaints from downtown residents and underscored by political feuding among commissioners. The latest proposal to move the three-day event to Virginia Key has renewed tensions between Key Biscayne and Miami, who have argued over large-scale events in the past.

On Saturday, Key Biscayne’s government released a video raising concerns over the anticipated traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The video also depicts the festival as a magnet for crime and rampant drug use that will cause an environmental disaster on Virginia Key. The message uses footage from Ultra’s past — which is far from squeaky clean, given past problems with crowd control and drug abuse — to encourage residents to organize opposition to the proposals.

But organizers from the festival, which has enjoyed a largely incident-free run since additional security and safety measures were put in place in 2015, say the anti-Ultra campaign is unfair and defamatory.

In the video posted to Key Biscayne’s official Facebook page over the weekend, newly elected Mayor Michael Davey calls for residents to organize against Ultra as he narrates a slideshow of images that include litter pocking a sandy beach, a sea of plastic refuse coating the grounds of a festival and even a hypodermic needle sticking out of sand. The scenes are clearly not from Ultra, which has taken place in one of downtown Miami’s two waterfront parks for the last 18 years, neither of which has a sandy beach.

Alina Baum, 24, from Germany dances as confetti sprinkles the crowd during the third day of the Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami on Sunday, March 26, 2017. MATIAS J. OCNER For the Miami Herald

The video paints a harsh and negative portrait of the festival and its attendees while misstating some of the reasons Miami’s commission unanimously voted to reject a new contract for Ultra to stay in Bayfront Park in September.

“Why? Because of environmental destruction, noise and an increase in alcohol and drug-related violence,” Davey said, speaking over some of the non-Ultra photos and footage of people jumping the fence to get into Ultra several years ago before security was beefed up.

The message misrepresented the recent debate over Ultra’s future in Bayfront Park, which has played out in multiple public hearings and community meetings after Ultra’s most recent contract ended. Downtown residents were primarily disturbed with the noise blasting from the festival, the traffic snarls and the lack of access they have to Bayfront Park due to Ultra and other events that occupy the park throughout the year.

Tuesday night, Davey told the Miami Herald he did not see the images that were paired with his voice message, but the photos nevertheless show what could happen if Ultra is allowed to happen on Virginia Key.

“The message is what I recorded,” he said. “The message is that this just isn’t the right place for this event.”

He is scheduled to meet with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s vote. Davey said he hopes to reach a “reasonable solution” when he meets with Suarez.

Ultra organizers responded over the weekend with a statement calling out Davey and the video.

“It unfairly disparages our brand and potentially criminalizes our patrons,” said Ray Martinez, Ultra’s spokesman and head of security.

Village Manager Andrea Agha said the video should have used images from Ultra, but the point was to show what they believe might happen.

At a Village Council meeting Tuesday night, outgoing Mayor Mayra Lindsay said the village has “done a lot of leg work” ahead of Thursday’s meeting. She said the video circulating “illustrates” what happens at festivals.

“They may have used stock photos, but it’s factual,” she said. “It wasn’t out of line. What I think is out of line is the lack of communication and respect on the side of the city of Miami.”

Over the 20 years Ultra has grown from a seaside rave to a juggernaut in the electronic dance music world, the event has had its fair share of controversial moments, earning the festival notoriety and a reputation for debauchery. But after a security guard was trampled in 2014 by a crowd stampeding through a fence into the festival because they didn’t have tickets, organizers regrouped.

Since 2015, the event has been staged at Bayfront Park without any major incidents, and arrests and medical calls have steadily declined. The festival banned minors, upped security, hardened its fencing and created a drug amnesty program to discourage substance abuse.

Members of Ultra’s management said they welcome an “open-minded and good-faith dialogue” with Davey and other Key Biscayne officials.

The bitterness sets the stage for Thursday’s commission meeting, when Miami’s elected officials will consider approving a licensing agreement with Ultra to stage the event March 29-31 in two “in-tandem” locations on Virginia Key.

Key Biscayne residents railed against the idea during an emergency Village Council meeting last week where speakers called Ultra “abhorrent” and an “absolutely horrible disruptive event.”

Key Biscayne and Miami have a history of not getting along.

In 2015, Key Biscayne sued Miami over plans to build a park and venue to hold events including the Miami International Boat Show. The village argued Miami violated a deed restriction placed on the property when the land was turned over to the city by Miami-Dade County. Similar to the argument against having Ultra there, the village contended the boat show and other events would impact the nearby environmental preserve and have a detrimental effect on the Rickenbacker Causeway, the one way in and out of Key Biscayne.

For months, Key Biscayne and Miami worked on a settlement agreement that would include Key Biscayne contributing to the repairs, allowing them to have a voice in the process. Miami commissioners did not agree to the settlement.

“The city of Miami commission never adopted a settlement regarding the boat show, and Key Biscayne voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit,” said Miami spokesman Eugene Ramirez.

At Key Biscayne’s Village Council meeting Tuesday night, residents were told of plans to organize opposition at Thursday’s commission meeting in Miami. The village is chartering a bus to shuttle residents who want to speak during Miami’s public comment period Thursday morning. The bus will leave Key Biscayne’s community center at 8:15 a.m. Miami’s meeting starts at 9 a.m.

When Key Biscayne learned of the potential plan from the Miami Herald on Nov. 2, its leaders jumped into action, Agha said. On Nov. 3, she requested applications, permits, security plans and noise mitigation ideas.

The village called an emergency meeting Nov. 5 and got direction from elected officials. Days later, Agha hired marketing agency The M Network, which launched a full-blown campaign to let Key Biscayne residents know about Ultra’s plans. The agency launched the website, staffed booths at two community events, recorded podcasts and notified condo associations, environmental groups and academic associations about the proposal. The city sent letters to Miami, Miami-Dade and Ultra with an attached resolution in opposition to the festival.

In March 2018, the Ultra Music Festival at Bayfront Park included this giant, fire-spewing spider. MATIAS J. OCNER

Julio De Armas, PTSA president of MAST Academy, said he is deeply opposed to Ultra coming to Virginia Key, and he stands with the village against the festival.

“I don’t even understand how they can allow that to happen,” he said.

De Armas cited efforts by the school to clean up the park and basin.

“It’s like spitting in our face,” he said, adding the school will not allow parking as it has done for other events at the park. “We will not condone anything to do with that event.”

Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez has rebuffed the initial outcry from Key Biscayne, saying he believes Miami’s government and residents should determine what happens within city limits.

According to the latest draft of the licensing agreement, Ultra would be required to submit an environmental remediation plan explaining how the festival would “avoid damage to, or contamination of, environmentally sensitive habitat, vegetation, or preserved areas.” Organizers would also have to submit to the city a $1 million surety bond to guarantee compliance with all environmental regulations.

Assurances in the contract might not mean much to Key Biscayne residents who are convinced Ultra doesn’t belong on Virginia Key. Resident Nancy Elisburg, who has lived in Key Biscayne full time since 1996, said while she is adamantly against Ultra coming to Virginia Key, she thinks “that there is a better chance that it will take place than it won’t.”

“I think we have to be on the record with all of the concerns, then prove that they said they were going to take care of it and didn’t.”