Miami Beach calls for safety measures after fatal boat crash
On a Friday morning when Donna Blaustein walks out into her backyard, she’s greeted by quiet waters and the occasional sounds of boats zipping to their destinations. Her home sits on the Venetian Islands, less than a mile away from Flagler Memorial Island.
For her, weekday mornings are like the calm before the storm.
Blaustein, like other residents, is unhappy with what Flagler Memorial Island has become.
In recent years, the unoccupied island in Biscayne Bay — also known as Monument Island — has turned into a party destination attracting boaters and jet skiers, much to the displeasure of nearby residents who object to the blasting music and watercraft speeding through the crowded waterways, Blaustein said.
“It’s really a changed area, it’s not what it used to be,” Blaustein said. “At one time it used to be very, very peaceful.”
Whenever the weekend hits — and especially holiday weekends — the island turns into “party island,” Blaustein said.
It’s not unusual to find a “parking lot of boats,” she said, on those busy days when congestion does little to stave off those who favor speed over safety.
“Sometimes I look out and it looks like a hundred [people] will be out there with constant noise, constant partying, the jet skis going,” Blaustein said. “My son and his friends used to swim over there before they allowed speeding around there. Now it’s too dangerous.”
As concerns about the area have heightened, the city of Miami Beach has been working to combat safety issues — starting with the area’s speed zone. A slow speed zone around the 4-acre island exists — but only 100 feet out from the island’s shoreline. Beyond the slow speed zone is a 35 mph water-sports area that has attracted ire from those who view it as a hotbed for inexperienced boaters and those who turn a blind eye to speed restrictions.
Mike Simpson, co-owner of Island Queen Cruises and Tours, said some days around the island can be a “recipe for disaster.”
“On any given weekend you can have hundreds and hundreds of vessels, all sizes and shapes,” Simpson said.
Earlier this month, Miami Beach commissioners passed a resolution sponsored by Mayor Dan Gelber, urging the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to eliminate the 35 mph zone surrounding the island and make it a year-round slow speed zone, where watercraft are only permitted to create a minimum wake.
“All these vessels are congregating there and speeding around that area, and it’s totally inconsistent with the residential areas,” said Michele Burger, Gelber’s chief of staff.
The island and its surrounding area have become a notorious destination for entertainment and revelry, but it wasn’t always like this. Built in the 1920s, the man-made, uninhabited island was never intended to attract swarms of people. It was promoted by real estate developer Carl Fisher to pay homage to Henry Flagler, one of the founders of the Florida East Railway Co.
The island sits between the Venetian and MacArthur causeways. A 110-foot obelisk, a monument to Flagler, sits at the center of the island, towering over palm trees and other lush vegetation. The island has few amenities beyond picnic tables and trash cans, but draws boaters who beach their watercraft on the island’s narrow strips of sand.
“It was just something that you would glide by or see from a bridge,” said Paul George, who gives historic tours for the HistoryMiami Museum. “Fisher’s idea was people would get a sense of the importance of Henry Flagler, but what’s happened in recent years is there’s so many boaters in the Miami area, it’s become kind of a recreational place.”
Miami Beach has been in contact with Miami-Dade County on working to get FWC to change the area’s speed zone.
On Tuesday, county commissioners passed their own resolution unanimously and without discussion, urging FWC to change the 35 mph zone to a slow speed zone.
“Watercraft operators often illegally exceed the 35 mph speed limit, resulting in unsafe levels of vessel traffic congestion that create a significant risk of collision and threat to boating safety,” the resolution said.
Since April, in the aftermath of a fatal boating accident on Government Cut’s north jetty, FWC and Miami Beach have been paying close attention to the area surrounding the island. The Miami Beach Police Department said its Marine Patrol gave out almost 140 citations in the area surrounding the island from April 15 through the first week in June.
“It’s an excessive amount for that area,” Burger said.
Reasons for the citations included careless operation, violation of speed zones and safety-related violations in addition to loud noise. Burger said she’s hopeful the data will influence FWC’s decision to change the speed zone designation.
“What’s happened, apparently, is there really hasn’t been an enormous amount of data that the commission has,” Burger said. “I think part of the problem is, there’s just not enough law enforcement officers on the waterway. Miami Beach is only nine miles long and we only have four law enforcement officers who are marine patrol. There’s zero chance they can cover all the water at any given time.”
The city and county don’t have the authority to change the speed limit around Monument Island; only the Fish and Wildlife Commission can do that. Carol Lyn Parrish, spokeswoman for the FWC, said the city will need to show substantial evidence that the 35 mph zone has become a legitimate public safety issue.
The current 35 mph speed restriction was implemented in 1991 under state manatee protection and boating safety rules, Parrish said.
The primary causes of accidents around Monument Island and in Biscayne Bay from 2014-2018 were operator inexperience and failure to maintain a proper look-out from the operated vessel, according to FWC data. Most of the accidents were vessel collisions.
Businesses in the area, such as Ocean Force Adventures Miami Beach, which leads small boat tours, said the proposed speed zone change would present only a slight hindrance to business, but Kim Falconer, the company’s owner, says safety is the priority.
“We would probably have to change our route to that area,” Falconer said. “I’d rather see the safety aspect occur and us change up our side a little bit if that’s what it takes.”
FWC has designated most of Biscayne Bay and surrounding areas as slow speed all year, except parts of the Meloy Channel, which is southeast of Monument Island near Government Cut and designated 30-35 mph, and sections of the Intracoastal Waterway, which vary between slow speed, idle speed (no wake) and 30 mph.
Roger Simon, who has been in the charter boat business for about 14 years, said another slow speed zone wouldn’t be a nuisance to experienced boaters.
“Real boaters would be thrilled,” Simon said. Inexperienced boaters “who buy boats and don’t know anything wouldn’t obey the law anyway.”
“I’ve paddle-boarded out to Monument Island sometimes and I’ve literally almost been run over by boats going 45 mph towards the Venetian Bridge,” Simon said. “Miami and Fort Lauderdale are the boating capital of the world; there’s just more and more boats and probably more need for this kind of safety.”
The problems around Monument Island don’t stop at speeding. Illegal charters — boats that transport passengers without proper Coast Guard documentation — have added to the congestion and contributed to the party scene around the island.
Although Falconer agrees implementing a slow speed zone is a good start to crack down on safety issues, she said it isn’t enough to curb other causes of concern.
“I think that would drastically improve the situation in term of the Jet Skis,” Falconer said. “I don’t think it’s going to do a thing with illegal charter activity.”
Although that activity is still a worry, Falconer said she has seen the Coast Guard step up its game in prosecuting illegal charters.
“They are out there aggressively pursuing illegal charters,” Falconer said. “We’ve seen a huge ramp-up of Coast Guard presence and prosecution.”
Burger said the city has no control on the number of boats that can be anchored at the island, but the city’s focus right now is on putting a damper on speeding. The need for a new slow speed zone has become dire, she said.
“It’s just becoming just like our highways here in Miami,” Burger said. “It’s becoming more and more congested, and I think everyone is just concerned it’s a bit of an accident waiting to happen.”