Miami-Dade County

Casino giant Genting’s marina gambit: Good for manatees?

Casino giant Genting would like to a 50-yacht marina on its site on Biscayne Bay, which it bought from the Miami Herald in 2011.
Casino giant Genting would like to a 50-yacht marina on its site on Biscayne Bay, which it bought from the Miami Herald in 2011. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Casino operator Genting, which has been seeking permits for a 50-yacht marina at its property at the old Miami Herald site in downtown Miami since 2013, has floated an unusual proposal to Miami-Dade County environmental regulators to goose approval of the slow-moving application.

It’s asking the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources to allow the company to transfer existing boat-slip permits from properties on the Miami River owned by a scion of the Matheson family — something county regulators say has never been done.

Under the county’s manatee protection plan, which strictly limits construction of new powerboat slips in the river and bay to protect the endangered marine mammals and their habitat, Genting subsidiary Resorts World Miami is eligible for no more than eight slips at the Herald site, assuming that it could win approval from the hard-to-satisfy regulators.

In a July 5 letter to the county, though, Resorts World’s consultant, Kirk Lofgren of Ocean Consulting, outlined a proposal to transfer 42 slip permits now attached to Austral Marina — which Lofgren owns — and three parcels owned by Finlay Matheson on which he operates a marina and has leased out space to Apex Marine, a repair and maintenance boatyard. Matheson is a prominent descendant of the family that gave the land for Crandon Park on Key Biscayne to the county in exchange for construction of the Rickenbacker Causeway, and that also donated a portion of the land for Matheson Hammock Park.

The consultant’s letter has prompted speculation that Genting is ready to move on at least part of its long-delayed project at the site, which it bought in 2011 for $236 million. The casino giant originally announced plans for a massive gambling resort on the property, including a big marina, but those foundered when the Florida Legislature failed to legalize casino gambling.

Genting has said it still intends to build a resort hotel on the site, but has not submitted a plan to the city, and its intentions remain shrouded in mystery. Reports earlier this year suggested the company was shopping the property to prospective buyers.

No one who could speak on behalf of Resorts World Miami could be reached this week. Lofgren said in an email he was traveling and not immediately available. A spokeswoman for sister company Resorts World Bimini, reached late Tuesday afternoon, said she was unaware of the matter but would pass on a query, which had not been answered by evening.

Matheson was unavailable as well. His office said last week he would be sailing off the coast of New England for 10 days and unreachable.

Miami-Dade regulators cautioned, however, that reviews of applications for new marina slips can take years. Applications are valid for three years, and Resort World’s would expire in December if the company doesn’t get an approval by then. A new application would be necessary to restart the process, RER officials said. One of the last major marinas approved in the bay, Flagstone’s megayacht facility on Watson Island, took about a decade to approve, they said.

In his letter, Lofgren suggests that the benefit to manatees from removing the slips from the river would outweigh the impact of the bayfront marina, but does not explicity lay out his argument.

That’s what RER regulators, who are reviewing the proposal as well as the original application, would have to weigh, said Pamela Sweeney, manager of the agency’s coastal resources section, which grants the permits. Some transfers of permits have been approved in the past when applicants can show no net harm to manatees or their habitat, but never very far from the slips’ original location, she said.

“The department has approved slip transfers before in close proximity to one another or immediately across a canal,” Sweeney said. “In those situations, the manatees are not going to notice if a boat is coming from one side rather than the other.”

It can’t be assumed that removing slips from the river would automatically constitute a benefit for manatees, Sweeney said. The river is a high-traffic corridor for manatees, especially in winter, when many are drawn by its warm waters to breed and rest, she said.

But the former Herald site at One Herald Plaza is also classified as essential manatee habitat. In addition, RER says, a dive of the waters where the marina would be built found sponges, coral and a threatened species of seagrass, among other benthic resources — all factors that would weigh in a decision on whether to approve the facility, Sweeney said.

Lofgren’s letter says the marina could accommodate powerboats 50 to 100 feet long only for long-term rentals, without any daily or transient users. That would limit boat traffic that can pose a threat to manatees.

But Lofgren’s proposal is raising concerns from members of the Miami River Commission, an agency that reviews development on the river partly with an eye towards protecting its shipping, fishing and marine industry. The commission will discuss the proposal at a public hearing in September.

Because slip permits removed from the river would be difficult if not impossible to replace, commission members are worried that approving the transfer would hurt the industry, which has shrunk significantly as development marches up the river. They also worry it could unravel a legal compact that settled a series of lawsuits during the last real-estate boom. The compact sets out precisely where development can occur and identifies properties where marine-related businesses are to be preserved — and that includes Matheson’s properties, said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, the river commission chairman.

But without active marine uses on the properties, Aguirre said, he fears Matheson and other property owners could then push for condo development. Aguirre, an agent who recently brokered a lease of part of Matheson’s property to Apex, said he believes that both that marina and Lofgren’s “are quite full.”

“We need to protect this industry. The waterfront industry is good for South Florida,” Aguirre said. “We need to have places to get work done. The marine trades represent a huge part of the economic engine of Miami-Dade County.”

Aguirre, who argues the manatee protection plan is too strict, says he has no objections to a new marina at the Herald site.

“I have no problem putting slips on the bay. It’s a great idea. My problem is taking them out of the river,” he said. “The guy on the bay can get his own slips.”