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Manatees trump Miami marina plan

The Cabinet's concerns for endangered manatees could signal a change for waterfront development in Florida.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- In a move that could signal the future of waterfront development in Florida, a marina that was supposed to be the centerpiece of Miami's downtown redevelopment plans was torpedoed Tuesday by concerns that it could be deadly for endangered manatees.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet voted 5-2 to turn down the proposed marina to be built on the western shore of Brickell Key, just south of the mouth of the Miami River in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

"Manatees hang out right where they (want to) put these docks," said Jerry Karnas of the Save the Manatee Club, which opposed the project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which last week had issued a permit allowing the project to proceed because it "would not have an adverse impact on fish and wildlife," backpedaled this week and suspended that permit.

Environmental groups had strenuously objected to the Corps permit, arguing that issuing it violated the settlement of a federal lawsuit over manatee protection. The settlement, reached two months ago, was supposed to change the way federal regulators permit waterfront development, forcing developers to avoid areas where manatees congregate.

Since the settlement, the Save the Manatee Club has reviewed about two dozen permit applications developers have sent to the Corps. The Brickell Key marina was the first they found objectionable.

U.S. Army officials in Jacksonville did not return a call seeking comment. Environmental activists, who were initially outraged and upset that the Corps had permitted the marina, were far happier when Corps officials suspended its approval.

"They did the right thing this time," said Save the Manatee Club biologist Patti Thompson. "Each one after this one should be more in line" with the settlement agreement, she said.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management objected to the Brickell Key project as well. The state Department of Environmental Protection recommended the Cabinet turn it down in part because putting a big marina there would violate the county's own plan for protecting manatees.

"When we finally get a manatee protection plan in place and everybody agrees on it, we should stick to what that plan calls for," said Brad Hartman of the state wildlife agency.

The marina had been proposed by Swire Properties. One of the largest property investment companies in Hong Kong, Swire has already developed Brickell Key with condominiums for 3,000 residents, a hotel and a gourmet restaurant -- but no marina.

"It's unfortunate that with 3,000 people living on the island we can't touch the water," complained Swire president Stephen Owens, an avid boater, after the vote. "The passion and the fanaticism of the manatee cause is such that (to environmentalists) any marina is a bad marina."

The environmental agencies and activists contended the Brickell Key project would put more boats into an area considered vital habitat for the endangered marine mammals, which are frequently hurt or killed by boaters.

But representatives from the city and Swire pointed out that the marina would include a headquarters building and six boat slips for state Marine Patrol officers. Beefing up the presence of law enforcement would slow down the boaters who now barrel through the area unimpeded, they told the Cabinet.

"Manatees are better off with the project than without it," argued Paul Larsen, an environmental consultant hired by Swire. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo contended that the marina would be a "critical linchpin in crime prevention, boating safety, and manatee protection." One project supporter even predicted it would block the flow of drugs into Miami.

"Are you saying that parking a couple of boats and having a little observation tower is going to stop drugs coming into Miami?" Attorney General Bob Butterworth asked. Undercover agents hanging cane poles off the riverbank would work better, he said.

Education Commissioner Charlie Crist and Comptroller Bob Milligan voted for the marina. Owens said the vote casts doubt on the city's ability to build other waterfront projects, including a proposed "mega-yacht marina" on another island 300 yards away.

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