Environmental concerns raised over proposed homeless camp on Virginia Key

Concerns are growing after Miami city commissioners approved a plan to move forward with a pilot program that will create a homeless encampment on Virginia Key, next to land that has been deemed as critically endangered.

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. – Concerns are growing after Miami city commissioners approved a plan to move forward with a pilot program that will create a homeless encampment on Virginia Key, next to land that has been deemed as critically endangered.

Though it’s not a done deal yet, as the city is still looking at other possible sites, nature lovers are sounding off and gearing up for a fight to save Virginia Key.

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

An eco-paradise that may be lost forever, many fear, if the City of Miami moves forward with the controversial pilot program that would take the homeless off the streets and bring them to Virginia Key, next to bike paths, a public park and a lagoon where children and families come to play in nature.

That’s where the city is looking to build an encampment of tiny homes for 50 to 100 people, at the north point of historic Virginia Key.

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

Alonso’s business rents out kayaks and paddleboards to residents and visitors of all ages affording them the opportunity to get up-close to nature, which, thanks to the volunteer efforts of many, is now thriving.

“The wildlife here has bounced back, where in other parts of the state, the manatee population is dwindling,” said Alonso. “Here, it’s increasing, and it’s because of what we don’t do, which is we don’t stress the area.”

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

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

“Why would anybody think about putting a homeless encampment out on Virginia Key?” McLean said. “They’re going to put all this infrastructure in, they’re going to take away from what is out here naturally, if they’re going to build residences, there are no residents on Virginia Key. That’s why we like it.”

In fact, the potential environmental impact never came up, not even once, when 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 homeless camp, efforts spearheaded by Commissioner Joe Carollo.

“What we are going to build are tiny homes,” Carollo said. “Because you’re putting tiny homes here, that’s not going to have any impact on the environment.”

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

“No building permits should be issued without review and consideration of all possible environmental impacts by the Miami-Dade Division of 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 just that, but the proposed camp sits right next to land that has already identified for acquisition for conservation for environmentally sensitive lands through its EEL (Environmentally Endangered Lands) program.

And though Virginia Key is in the City of Miami, it’s also in Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado’s District 7 and Regalado is actively working on presenting the City of Miami with other options to help the city address its homeless crisis.

“This is not the right location,” Regalado said of the Virginia Key proposed site. “We know that they have an issue, I want to resolve that issue. But we’re also taking the opportunity to educate folks on how environmentally sensitive Virginia Key is, and why we should preserve it.”

The surrounding Biscayne Bay is at a critical tipping point because of all the land based pollutants and deadly nutrients that continue to flow into the fragile watershed, and there is legitimate concern is that Virginia Key is just not ready for this.

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

And though her vote last week was to move forward with the potential site, freshman Commissioner Christine King told Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre that all bets are off if this would hurt our fragile ecosystem.

“There’s nothing set in stone about encampments,” King said. “Because we can’t destroy one thing to help something else. It has to commingle, it has to be a good fit. And if it’s not environmentally sound, it’s not a good fit, is it?”

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

“It is such a magical combination of nature’s beauty, nature’s uniqueness, something that you’re not going to get any place else in Miami, combined with the magic that is the city of Miami,” said McLean.

The City of Miami would have to overcome many hurdles in order to make this happen. The proposed camp would sit next to a Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Central District’s Waste Water Treatment Plant. There’s also a school, MAST Academy, and an at-risk youth intervention camp, AMI Kids, that is also close by.

There are also laws about who can live to a next school or any place where children congregate.

Plus, there’s not a grocery store for miles, and there are transit issues.

Those are just some of the many questions the City of Miami has yet to address about the viability of the location.

Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. there will be a virtual town hall to address the concerns hosted by Regalado. To register for the town hall, click here.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.