Miami-Dade commission delays vote on crucial permit for boat show dock

Miami Marine Stadium (credit: Rick Bravo)
Miami Marine Stadium (credit: Rick Bravo)

The Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday postponed its vote to issue a permit and grant a variance that would allow the Miami International Boat Show to install a floating dock with 830 boat slips and other floating structures, as well as use water taxis to ferry people in the waters off Virginia Key.

The county commission’s delay is the latest development in the ongoing war, pitting the village of Key Biscayne and environmentalists against the city of Miami and boat show operator National Marine Manufacturers Association regarding the annual event. The boat show is scheduled to take place at the Miami Marine Stadium site in Virginia Key in early February.

Xavier Suarez, the county commissioner whose district includes Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, requested the deferral based on concerns raised by Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay and village John Shubin. “I have been communicating with everybody involved in this matter,” Suarez said. “I want to really admonish the two cities for not resolving this through mediation.”

Suarez said the county commission needed more time to research Key Biscayne officials’ claims that the agreement between Miami and National Marine to host the boat show in Virginia Key violates a Miami-Dade deed restriction on the property. Suarez also expressed disappointment with city officials for failing to identify funds for the restoration of Miami Marine Stadium. “We don’t see the city moving on that particular issue,” Suarez said. “That is very troubling to me.”

Miami is spending $23 million to convert the stadium’s surface parking lot into an event space that will be used as a public park during the months the boat show is not in operation.

During the hearing, Kerri L. Barsh, a shareholder with law firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents the boat show, said the permit would allow the boat show to install an environmentally friendly temporary dock and floating structures. The variance would allow the boat show to use water taxis to ferry boat show attendees to Miami Marine Stadium from other locations in the city like the FEC boat slip near American Airlines Arena, for example. Current county zoning code prohibits the use of water taxis in that area of Biscayne Bay.

Barsh said the boat show is also waiting for the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to issue separate permits related to the event’s operations. “The state has issued notice of intent to issue permit,” Barsh said. “They are satisfied that we have complied with all environmental requirements.”

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Steve Ryder, project development manager for Bellingham Marine, the Jacksonville company constructing the temporary slips, said his firm is constructing an environmentally friendly dock system.

According to a memo from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, he and the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management recommended approval of the permit and variance with conditions. For example, National Marine would be required to submit a plan showing how it would minimize pollutants in the water, as well as provide maps to all exhibitors and water taxis of the routes they will use to avoid disturbing manatees and damaging environmentally sensitive areas.

However, Key Biscayne’s attorney Shubin insisted a 1963 county deed restriction prohibits the city from using Virginia Key for the boat show. He also argued that the public would be denied access to Marine Stadium during the 90 day period the boat show is being set up, taking place and subsequently torn down.

Lindsay warned county commissioners that issuing the permit would be granting the boat show a license to harm the environmentally sensitive ecosystem in Biscayne Bay, as well as disturb manatees during the height of their mating season. “This job has been punted to you and this is a red flag,” Lindsay said. “If this permit is issued today, when this project goes terribly wrong you will be the ones who made the call.”

Key Biscayne has three lawsuits pending against the city and National Marine aimed at stopping the event from taking place in Virginia Key. Settlement talks between all parties fell apart in October.

Lindsay lauded the commission’s decision after it deferred its vote. “The County Commission made a responsible decision by deferring the Boat Show’s environmental permit for a month,” she said in a statement.

“With the boat show scheduled for February, time is clearly of the essence,” Cathy Rick-Joule, director of the Miami International Boat Show said. “We look forward to receiving approval for the updated plan in December so we can continue the boat show’s decades-long legacy and the $597 million in annual economic impact it brings, in addition to ensuring we continue upholding our reputation as stewards of the environment.”