Environmental concerns raised over proposed Virginia Key homeless camp

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. Concerns grow after city of Miami commissioners approved a plan to go ahead with a pilot program that will create a homeless camp on Virginia Key, near land considered in danger of extinction.

While it’s not a done deal yet, as the city is still looking for other possible sites, nature lovers are ringing out and preparing for a fight to save Virginia Key.

“You can see the manatees, you can hear the birds flying overhead,” said Esther Alonso, owner of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center. “This is Miami. This is the heart of Miami. This is the soul of Miami “.

An eco-paradise that could be lost forever, many fear, if the city of Miami goes ahead with the controversial pilot program that would take the homeless off the streets and take them to Virginia Key, alongside bike paths, a public park and a lagoon. where children and families come to play in nature.

This is where the city is looking to build a camp of tiny houses for 50-100 people, at the north point of historic Virginia Key.

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“There will be nothing here. This will be a forgotten place, ”said Alonso, who is fiercely protective of this shared courtyard.

The Alonso business rents kayaks and paddleboards to residents and visitors of all ages, giving them the opportunity to get closer to nature, which, thanks to the voluntary efforts of many, is now thriving.

“The wildlife here has recovered, while in other parts of the state the manatee population is decreasing,” Alonso said. “Here, it’s increasing, and that’s because of what we don’t do, which is we don’t emphasize the area.”

It is the environmental impact of the proposed transition zone that is ringing the alarm bell loudly.

Sunny McLean is one of the co-founders of the Virginia Key Alliance, which was instrumental in creating the Virginia Key Master Plan, a blueprint for how the earth should be protected and used for generations to come.

“Why would anyone think of setting up a homeless camp in Virginia Key?” McLean said. “They’ll put all this infrastructure in, they’ll take what’s out here naturally, if they build residences, there won’t be any residents in Virginia Key. That’s why we like it. ”

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In fact, the potential environmental impact has never occurred, not even once, when the City of Miami Commissioners voted three-to-two last week to move forward with plans to consider Virginal Key as a possible site for the field of homeless, the efforts led by Commissioner Joe Carollo.

“What we’re going to build are small houses,” Carollo said. “Since you are putting small houses here, it will have no impact on the environment.”

But Miami-Dade County says otherwise, replying in a statement:

“No building permits should be issued without review and consideration of all possible environmental impacts by the Miami-Dade Division for Environmental Resource Management (RER-DERM).”

Over the years, Miami-Dade County has invested millions in habitat restoration, contamination assessments, and remediation efforts on Virginia Key.

Not only that, but the proposed field is located right next to land that has already been identified for acquisition for conservation of environmentally sensitive lands through its EEL (Environmentally Endangered Lands) program.

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And although Virginia Key is located in the city of Miami, it is also in District 7 of Commissioner Raquel Regalado of Miami-Dade and Regalado is actively working to present the city of Miami with other options to help the city deal with its homelessness crisis.

“This is not the right position,” Regalado said of the Virginia Key proposed site. “We know they have a problem, I want to solve it. But we’re also taking this opportunity to educate people about how sensitive Virginia Key is to the environment and why we should preserve it. “

The surrounding Biscayne Bay is at a tipping point with all of the earth’s pollutants and deadly nutrients continuing to flow into the fragile watershed, and there’s a legitimate concern that Virginia Key isn’t ready for it.

“It’s the most for recreational use. You see, there was like a toilet, on a potty, not 50, 100 people using it day in and day out, “Regalado said.” And all of that would escape into the water and further contaminate the area. ”

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And although her vote last week was to move forward with the potential site, freshman commissioner Christine King told Local 10 News’s Louis Aguirre that all bets are void if that would damage our fragile ecosystem.

“There is nothing set in stone in the camps,” King said. “Because we can’t destroy one thing to help something else. It has to blend, it has to fit well. And if it’s not ecological, it’s not suitable, is it? “

The city will return in September with its final decision. There is so much at stake.

“It’s such a magical combination of the beauty of nature, the uniqueness of nature, something you won’t find anywhere else in Miami, combined with the magic that is the city of Miami,” McLean said.

The city of Miami would have to overcome many obstacles to make this happen. The proposed field would be located next to a wastewater treatment plant in the Miami-Dade Central Sewer and Water District. There is also a school, MAST Academy, and an at-risk youth intervention camp, AMI Kids, which is nearby.

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There are also laws on who can live in a nearby school or any place where children congregate.

Also, there isn’t a grocery store for miles and there are transportation issues.

These are just some of the many questions that the city of Miami has yet to address about the feasibility of the place.

On Thursday evening at 6:30 pm there will be a virtual town hall to address the concerns hosted by Regalado. To register with the town hall, click here.

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