Three years after a county environmental inspector stumbled upon a moonscape of mangrove stumps as the city prepared for the arrival of the popular Miami International Boat Show, not a single tree has been replanted. Plenty of emails have been exchanged, and more than 300,000 visitors welcomed since to three boat shows and a powerboat race. But the grindingly slow approval of plans and exchange of permits have left the Virginia Key site, at the center of controversial restoration efforts, missing the protective armor of about 300 trees.
“We’re in the middle of another hurricane season and we should be concerned about these things,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay, who fought plans to relocate the busy boat show to the fragile key. “We can all do better.”
County officials were not available to answer questions and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez did not respond to text or voice mail messages.
But a review of three years worth of emails and records show officials got off to a relatively enthusiastic start: Just after the inspector discovered the pile of chopped red and black mangroves in May 2015, Miami quickly agreed to do whatever was needed to fix the violation.
The boat show, and its hordes of people and waves of traffic, had drawn attention to the ongoing debate over how the city uses an island adjacent to a 700-acre critical wildlife area.
The graffiti-covered stadium constructed in 1963 and shuttered in 1992 has undergone a mini rebirth since the boat show moved from Miami Beach. The city spent $20 million to install electrical and drainage systems and repave a parking lot for the boat show. Earlier this year, it announced plans for a mooring field to showcase an event that attracts about 100,000 visitors and occupies the site for about four months every year. That has not sat well with neighbors and environmentalists who see the key, where turtles nest on beaches and manatees graze on seagrass, as a wildlife oasis in the middle of urban South Florida.
“The reality is removing the mangroves opened the site line for the venue. And they’re selling a venue,” Lindsay said. “I see it differently. I see it as a public parkland entrusted to the government to manage for the people. So we have a fundamental difference on what Virginia Key is all about.”
And it turns out trees can be planted in more ways than one.
County environmental regulators wanted the mangroves contained in planters to make them more resilient to what’s expected to be an increasingly busy boat basin. The city initially balked, then said it needed to hire an environmental consultant to handle the more complicated project that intruded on wetlands.
By April 2016, Miami had signed a consent agreement to avoid legal action and within two months submitted plans to replant just over 250 trees to make up for the more than 1,700 square feet of canopy ripped out by workers.
“It was almost shovel ready,” said Lindsay, who stopped following the efforts, “thinking that construction would be imminent.”
But that pending progress ended up getting bogged down in details and permits. There was a disagreement over whether riprap, the pile of rocks used to stabilize shorelines, should be one or two feet above the mean high water line at the base of the planters. Meetings were arranged and then rearranged. The consultant took a two-week vacation. There was a difference of opinion over what state and federal guidelines require for permits. In May 2017, federal permits were secured, and in November, a new plan with about 50 more trees agreed upon.
“I just wanted to follow up on your review of the revised mangrove planter drawings provided to your office on November 22,” the city’s Coral Gables consultant wrote to county regulators in January this year. “Please let me know if you have any questions.”
The county’s compliance officer replied that the preliminary plans were OK’d but additional sets were needed. In March, she checked back to inquire whether the city had reviewed the plans.
“The city is checking on the status,” the consultant answered. “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back.”
According to records, the county is still waiting.