Key Biscayne

Ultra hit with cease and desist letter after it bumps Rapture Festival off Virginia Key

As Ultra Music Festival organizers make plans for water taxis and shuttle buses and apply for permits to hold their three-day electronic dance music event on Virginia Key for the first time, a smaller festival pushed out of the same venue wants to stop Ultra.

When Miami commissioners approved a deal for Ultra to stage its festival outside the Miami Marine Stadium and in Virginia Key Beach Park, they displaced Rapture Electronic Music Festival, which has been held in the beach park for two years and was already on the calendar for the same weekend this year. The venue change followed Ultra’s ouster from Bayfront Park last year when neighbors complained about noise and the amount of time the music festival and large events occupied the park.

Rapture was booked at Virginia Key March 29-30, two of the three days Ultra now plans to move in. Despite objections from Rapture’s organizers at a meeting in November, four of the five commissioners approved a licensing agreement to give Ultra the same weekend.

Now, an attorney for Rapture has sent Ultra and the city a cease and desist letter demanding Ultra stop applying for permits or risk a lawsuit.

“We are investigating this matter further and if [you] do not immediately withdraw your application that directly interferes with our client’s planned festival time and location, we will be taking immediate action against you, the City and Virginia Key Beach Park Trust,” reads the letter from Rapture’s attorney, Paul K. Silverberg. “Any continued behavior and furtherance of the complained act will be considered willful and subject you to punitive damages.”

Silverberg contends the city had an understanding and ongoing relationship with Rapture to keep the event on Virginia Key for three more years.

“There are a number of government employees, who have already stated that Rapture was scheduled for that timing and that you knew — just like others in the city, Virginia Key Beach Park Trust and parks department,” Silverberg wrote.

Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez and Ultra spokesman Ray Martinez declined to comment on the letter.

Meanwhile, Ultra organizers have applied for permits and drafted plans for managing the festival’s impact on the environment and traffic. Completed traffic and environmental management plans are due to the city by Jan. 28, 60 days before the festival, under the licensing agreement approved in November. The festival is scheduled for March 29-31.

Critics of the plan to move Ultra to the island fear the three-day event will create a traffic nightmare on the causeway and disturb the sensitive environment on and around the island. Festival organizers are required to develop plans for how they intend to move people on and off the island and minimize the impact on the environment.

Documents submitted to environmental regulators and city staff show Ultra wants to shuttle concertgoers to and from Virginia Key on buses running on the Rickenbacker Causeway and water taxis, replicating an approach taken by the Miami International Boat Show to manage the mass of people that will descend on the island for the event. The daily attendance for the event could be about 40,000 — the size of Ultra’s crowd at Bayfront Park — though there could be a drop in attendance because of the venue change.

Martinez told the Miami Herald the festival will provide handicap parking, but festival goers will otherwise be brought to the event on multiple buses and water taxis. The number of buses, their departure points and the launch points for water taxis have not been finalized.

“We are still sourcing vessels,” Martinez said. “And the number of water taxis and launch location has not been finalized yet.”

Public records show the festival is considering launching water taxis from Watson Island. Ultra needs a permit from Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management to construct a temporary dock at the Marine Stadium to accommodate the water taxis. Organizers will also need to provide plans for how to keep people out of protected wetlands, how to keep manatees safe and how to control pollution. Martinez said Ultra has contracted Cardno, a global infrastructure and environmental services company, to craft a plan.

Environmental groups are watching closely. Before November’s vote, University of Miami scientists raised concerns about the impact Ultra’s booming bass might have on research fish at the school’s facility on Virginia Key. Activists have also warned the noise might affect birds during nesting season and manatees.

Government leaders from the village of Key Biscayne were among the loudest objectors to Ultra’s move to Virginia Key when the possibility was first reported by the Herald. The Rickenbacker Causeway is the only road to Key Biscayne, leading to worries that traffic snarls will trap residents. Since the vote, Village Manager Andrea Agha said Miami City Hall and the festival have included the village in planning discussions and listened to the village’s feedback. She said Ultra was tweaking traffic plans specifically because of comments by Key Biscayne leaders.

“There’s been a lot of communication,” she said. “We’re developing a good working relationship. I think time is of the essence here for everyone.”

Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.