A section of the area on Virginia Key that could be used for a homeless encampment, July 27, 2022. Fisher Island and the Port of Miami are in the background. The City of Miami wants to build "tiny homes," but county leaders are opposed. (KBI photo/Theo Miller)
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County Commissioner Raquel Regalado said Thursday she’d support legal action to revoke a property deed and reassert control of a barrier island if the City of Miami doesn’t back off a plan to put a homeless camp on Virginia Key. 

“I want to be on the record as a ‘hell no’ for this,” Regalado said at a town hall with more than 200 participants. “I will push for litigation. If that’s the case, it’s not the first time I sued the city of Miami.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she also opposes a homeless camp on the Virginia Key site adjacent to a sewage treatment plant. She outlined many practical problems with the site in a memo earlier Thursday, and told the meeting that Virginia Key is just not an acceptable place. 

“The intentions of creating more housing are very laudatory. That being said, we have some serious questions and concerns about this particular proposal, and certainly about the location,” the mayor said.

Miami city commissioners advanced the temporary housing concept in a 3-2 vote last week. Virginia Key, which is home to parks, a high school, research labs, and the Miami Seaquarium, is one of several possible locations. 

But the move has caused an uproar, drawing criticism from advocates for the homeless, cyclists, environmental groups, and residents of neighboring Key Biscayne.

More than 13,000 people have signed a petition asking City Mayor Francis Suarez to veto the measure. He has until Sunday to decide on a veto, according to a spokeswoman.

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Regalado’s legal threat, if carried out, could have profound ramifications. The county deeded part of Virginia Key to the city in 1982, but under a deed restriction, ownership of the parcel can revert to the county if the deed is violated. The city has big plans for other parcels on Virginia Key, such as the moribund Marine Stadium and commercial development that could be connected to a renovation of the Rickenbacker Causeway. All of that could be disrupted if the county were to take legal action. 

In her memo, county Mayor Levine Cava said she had directed staff to see if a homeless camp would violate the deed. 

In addition to deed restrictions, Levine Cava said a homeless camp would cause “significant friction” with Miami’s black community because of the impact to Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Virginia Key is not zoned for the residential units that an encampment would require, and any permanent structure would require the city to rezone the land, both Levine Cava and Regalado said. They also noted a 2010 Master Plan for Virginia Key focuses on recreation and environmental education. 

The town hall, organized by Regalado, did not include any representatives from the city of Miami. City Commissioner Joe Carollo defended the plan this week, saying critics were “inhumane” because “they don’t want them in their neighborhoods.” He said opposition from Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey and other residents was “elitist,” in an interview with WPLG-TV. 

City staff has said the location is “optimal” because it is secluded and far from residential areas. But several county department heads ticked off problems with the location: 

  • A county regulatory official, Josenrique Cueto, said there was no viable  transportation for a homeless encampment, with the site being two miles from the nearest bus stop at MAST Academy.
  • Pete Gomez, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said the site is classified as Zone A for hurricane evacuation purposes, with up to six feet of flooding with even a minor storm. He said fire hydrant coverage is inadequate if the encampment contains homes with kitchens.
  • Water and Sewer Director Roy Coley said bathroom sewer lines don’t exist on site and would require up to $3 million of work for 2,400 feet of piping and a pumping station.

And then there’s the central issue: the homeless themselves. 

The Homeless Trust, the county agency charged with caring for the homeless, gets $41 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Trust Chairman Ron Book. He repeated earlier statements that the concept falls short of federal guidelines. 

“If we lose that money, we don’t have the money to replace it. That means you have to start closing programs and putting people back out on the streets. We’re in the business of ending homelessness, not creating. We cannot afford to take those risks,” Book said. 

The Virginia Key site had already been under discussion as a spot for playing fields that the Village of Key Biscayne would contribute to, according to Village officials. The status of those discussions, which have been going on for months, was not clear. 

The homeless camp issue took a bizarre political twist Sunday when Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey said in an Instagram video that the plan was “staged to support people who are running for office in Key Biscayne who are supported by people on the dais in the city of Miami.” Davey refused to provide any specifics or evidence for his claim. 

In the WPLG interview, Carollo denied knowing anything about the island’s mayoral race and said opposition to a homeless camp from elected officials “should be toned down a little bit.” 

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Tony Winton contributed to this report.

Theo Miller is an intern reporter specializing in education, technology, politics, and the impacts those have on schools both on and off the Key. He is a graduate of MAST Academy. In Key Biscayne, he works in production with Crossbridge Church and the Anti-Social radio podcast, Often described as a full-time nerd, when he is not writing or in school, he loves cameras, cars, cooking, and cartoons.

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Theo Miller is an intern reporter specializing in education, technology, politics, and the impacts those have on schools both on and off the Key. He is a graduate of MAST Academy. In Key Biscayne, he works...