South Florida's boating industry can exhale a little after Miami-Dade commissioners approved a permit Tuesday evening that would allow the Miami International Boat Show to go off as planned on Virginia Key next year.
Despite objections from environmentalists and the village of Key Biscayne, commissioners voted 8-1 in favor of a two-year permit needed by the National Marine Manufacturers Association in order to build up to 830 boat slips, and floating docks and exhibition stages in the Marine Stadium Basin. Contractors are already erecting some 800,000 square feet of tents on the upland around the historic Marine Stadium, where some 1,500 vessels are slated to be exhibited on land and in water for five days over President's Day Weekend.
“We're thrilled with the decision,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said after the hearing. “Certainly we would have rather had a three-year permit, but a two-year permit gives us what we need to move forward.”
Dammrich’s association initially applied for a 10-year permit, and regulators recommended three years. But with the county’s permission, however brief, Dammrich said the show will be able to display about 500 vessels in the water. They will also run seven water taxis to and from the event, including one with a manatee spotter out of the FEC slip next to AmericanAirlines Arena.
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The county's approval of the permit -- Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava voted in opposition -- comes more than a year after Dammrich announced the Boat Show's move to Virginia Key, forced by renovations to the event's longtime home at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The announcement was initially celebrated, but quickly became embroiled in controversy as Key Biscayne officials sued to stop the event and environmental groups warned of damage to a nearby environmental preserve.
The county vote follows the Friday issuance of a permit by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. A third permit being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is pending. But Lee Hefty, the director of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, said “we believe they're prepared to issue a permit as well.”
For boating enthusiasts, hoteliers, and manufacturers, that’s good news. The trade show is among the largest in the world, and fills Miami-Dade hotel rooms like a Super Bowl. Executives from well-known manufacturers like Contender, Boston Whaler and Cigarette Racing attended Tuesday's hearing to tout the event as a significant portion of their business.
But warnings from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club have put the show's future in doubt. Initially, concerns about the event were focused on traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway, but objections blossomed into fears that the scale of the boat show will harm marine life in the basin, endanger manatees and threaten a protected wildlife conservation nearby on Virginia Key.
Critics of the show say they don’t want the boat show’s demise, but rather a scaled-down, more responsible event. Some argued that, if the commissioners granted the permit, they should reduce it from the proposed three years to one, and increase demands for monitoring.
“Tickets have been sold and your approval or denial here is not going to stop the boat show,” said Laura Reynolds, head of the Tropical Audubon Society. “But what you can do is actually make the environmental impacts smaller.”
On Monday, in response to assertions from boat show executives that the majority of the project site was mostly “silty sand,” marine biologist Colin Foord released video he says he shot over a matter of hours showing bottlenose dolphin, spotted eagle ray, queen conch and other marine life that call the basin home.
But county regulators assured commissioners that the dockage system being permitted was constructed over areas of “sparse” sea grass coverage, and downplayed warnings about the boat show endangering manatees and other marine life. Boat show representatives and contractors assured commissioners that they’re considerate of the environment.
Key Biscayne officials are still fighting efforts to bring the boat show to Virginia Key, having quickly appealed the state’s permit. But Dammrich said the NMMA will be sure to prove doubters wrong.
“We’re going to be extremely responsible,” he said.
This article has been updated to reflect which commissioner voted in opposition of the permit.