Regalado: “Hell no!” on plan for homeless project on Virginia Key; she and others opposed weigh in during Town Hall meeting

Calling it an "insurmountable mountain to climb" before a permit would ever be issued to bring between 50 and 100 "tiny homes" to shelter the homeless on Virginia Key, Commissioner Raquel Regalado and other Miami-Dade County officials on Thursday detailed why it is not a viable option.

They spoke during a one-hour Zoom meeting in which more than 200 concerned residents tuned in, some urging others to sign a petition which has gathered nearly 13,000 signatures to overturn last week's decision to select Virginia Key for a potential "pilot program."

Regalado, who said decisions are commonly made at Commission boards in which "some are no, and some a soft no. I want to be on the record as a ‘Hell, no!’ " she said, emphasizing how much she is against this project coming to an environmentally sensitive area.

For the record, she clarified that the Miami City Commission still wants to see at least two other viable options in September before proceeding. Last Thursday, Commissioners voted 3-2 to accept a motion by City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla to develop the homeless shelters in the North Point area of Virginia Key.

That came after the commission had initially voted down the proposal. de la Portilla, whose initial "no" vote had wiped out the resolution, had second thoughts later in the meeting and moved for the commissioners to reconsider the Virginia Key plan at the commission’s second September meeting– along with alternative sites for the project.

"We know it’s been a rushed issue," Regalado said. "We will find a solution to the homeless people in Miami ... I represent them well.

"If I have to, I will push for litigation," she added. "It's not the first time I sued the City of Miami. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that."

Regalado said that when Virginia Key was ceded over to the City of Miami, it was intended "for recreational use." Since this pilot would be for temporary housing, "they'd have to change their zoning restrictions," calling mobile tiny homes "a very gray area."

In addition, she said, the City of Miami has its "no-net loss" rules in place, so it would have to find other areas to substitute for the loss for the Virginia Key recreational space.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also was on hand for the first 30 minutes of Thursday’s Zoom meeting. She said the intention to house the homeless is "laudatory, but there are serious concerns about this proposal and its location." She noted the lack of nearby essential services and transit; emergency evacuations and safety issues; and, the fact that it's a "historically significant area" that needs to be protected.

Even the City of Miami's Master Plan would have to be reviewed to see if a project like this would violate that document, she said.

Moderator Louis Aguirre, an Emmy award-winning journalist at WPLG Local 10 News Miami, said one person told him the "second" July 28 commission vote, to proceed with the homeless camp site, "felt like a grenade going off."

Now, he said, "we're feeling the aftershocks."

Aguirre said that the July 28 decision affects more than those with ties to Virginia Key, or those living in Key Biscayne. He said it impacts the "three million stakeholders who have grown up in Miami and who have enjoyed the recreational elements there and getting close to the manatees. ... We love our city, our natural world. It's what makes living in Miami what it is."

Among the issues raised by officials concerning the Virginia Key site:

- Carlos Hernandez, Wastewater Permitting Chief with Miami-Dade County DERM (Division of Environmental Resources Management), said there "are a lot of moving parts" that would get reviewed by DERM, such as effects on critical habitats or tree resources; environmentally sensitive land; construction traffic; sediment runoff; stormwater impacts; parking availability; and even some potential for solid waste.

"DERM would look at the immediate footprint and the long-term footprint. Are you going to traverse other sensitive areas to bring in water and sewer. They may want to bring in septic tanks ... It's also in a Coastal A Zone next to a High Velocity Zone, where there would be significant wave action," which he said would be a "bad idea," and adding that sea level rise "will only complicate this further."

- Roy Coley, director of Miami-Dade Water and Sewer, said, "There’s no wastewater infrastructure in this area. A sewer system would have to be built there with 2,400 feet (of pressure-receiving lines)," saying it likely would cost $3 million just for that infrastructure.

Regalado said the consideration of using septic tanks is a "horrible idea,” noting the incongruity of “adding them while we are trying to get rid of them.”

- Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust program, said the tiny home pilot project “has merit, but needs to be placed in community-compatible, community-friendly" locations – especially if the portable tiny homes cost between $8-$12 million and the infrastructure another $3-$5 million.

Plus, he said, "the encampment endangers our $41 million partnership with the U.S. Housing and Development." Tiny homes are “legitimate housing dwellings ... not just sheds,” said Book. “We cannot compromise our partnership with HUD; we don't have the money to replace (what we'd lose). We are in the business of ending homelessness, not beginning it."

Just like the rules for the Homeless Trust, each tiny home resident would need to be screened. "Predators and sex offenders cannot live with 2,500 feet within a school or park," Book said.

Aguirre pointed out there also is a nearby area dedicated to helping troubled youth, so the proximity to the homeless would not work.

"I (have been) doing this for 27 years," Book said. "I know who’s still out there (those who are shelter-resistant, also called the "chronic homeless"). It doesn't work (by itself). It needs community embracement," he said. He also noted that many of the homeless have jobs in the city, making transportation to and from work (and to food) a challenge. The nearest bus stop from Virginia Key is at MAST Academy, he said.

"You've got insurmountable mountains to climb before they ever permit this project," Book added.

- Pete Gomez, with the Office of Emergency Management, said the camp site under consideration is in an Evacuation A Zone – "the first people who have to evacuate when a hurricane is headed our way." Storm surges of 3 to 6 feet would be possible there.

"With tiny homes (with kitchens), there's also a potential for fire," he said, noting that water supply from hydrants there would likely be low. “Are they going to build a fire station with the apparatuses; are they going to have a Rescue unit there? How are we going to get medical attention out there, or the food?

By putting the homeless on Virginia Key, “we’re putting them at risk for hurricanes. And, as you know, we live in Hurricane Alley," said Gomez.

Regalado said the Thursday Zoom meeting was important to show how Biscayne Bay and the quality of life could be impacted, and will “get the ball rolling ... We want to make it clear that Virginia Key is not the proper choice.

"When they (City of Miami commissioners) come back in September, we want to educate them as this site is a no-go," she said.

Aguirre said the meeting shined a spotlight not only on Virginia Key, but on the homeless issue, which needs to be addressed.

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