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Islandia, the Florida that never was, soon to be no more

The living quarters of a Biscayne National Park ranger sit on Adams Key, in the city of Islandia. Next month, more than 50 years after Islandia’s incorporation, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners is expected to vote to abolish its tiniest city — a chain of 33 islands, reachable only by boat.

New York Times

The living quarters of a Biscayne National Park ranger sit on Adams Key, in the city of Islandia. Next month, more than 50 years after Islandia’s incorporation, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners is expected to vote to abolish its tiniest city — a chain of 33 islands, reachable only by boat.

ELLIOTT KEY

Like many Florida schemes, the city of Islandia sprang from the delusions of land developers who imagined a rollicking resort town on an inaccessible speck of coral rock north of Key Largo.

In the end, their dreams were just another Florida hustle, one the authorities are finally poised to shut down. Next month, more than 50 years after Islandia's incorporation, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners is expected to take a vote to abolish its tiniest city — a chain of 33 islands, reachable only by boat, with Elliott Key as its centerpiece.

Islandia (population 5) will not be missed, in large part because Islandia (pronounced eye-LAND-eeyah) never existed; it was always more a developers' mirage than a spot on the map. Islandia has no school, no sewers, no courthouse, no shops and no road leading in or out. In fact, most of it sits on national park land.

It once had a municipal government. But that too was a ruse, a function of voter shenanigans that went unnoticed by the county for nearly 30 years. Since 1961, none of the voters who chose Islandia's succession of mayors and City Council members actually lived on the chain of islands, a violation of state law. Only property owners voted, and for simplicity's sake, they elected themselves. (Conveniently, city hall meetings were held inside real estate offices in the Miami area.)

The aspirations of Islandia's city officials began to unravel in 1989. That's when the town's newly elected, but wholly unauthorized, police chief fashioned his own uniform and walked into park headquarters with a sidearm in his holster. It was an unorthodox bid at legitimacy. Alarmed, the park rangers telephoned law enforcement and the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, which led to a finding that Islandia's government had long been illegal.

The city shuffled toward its demise — gradually and now suddenly. For years, the state had asked the county to do away with the city, which had become a bureaucratic annoyance. It was not until recently, though, that the county had a way of abolishing a city. "They don't operate like a city," said Commissioner Dennis C. Moss, whose district includes Islandia. "They don't have any elected officials. It's not a city.

"But it has quite a colorful history," he added.

Once a hideout for pirates, the 33 northernmost islands are now one of the Florida Keys' last unspoiled pockets, bypassed in the early 1900s by Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad to Key West and the Overseas Highway.

It was most endangered in 1960, when deep-pocketed developers and quixotic conservationists, known as bird watchers at the time, fought one of South Florida's most formidable battles over the land. To everyone's surprise, the bird watchers won.

Decades later, the ocean waters, translucent and shallow, remain a playground for lobster, fish, sharks and coral. Mahogany, buttonwood, gumbo-limbo and mangrove trees abound. Boaters drop anchor to swim offshore and to fish (and kick back cocktails). Children stay on Elliott Key for overnight camping trips.

"You can get the hell out there and restore the soul," said Lloyd Miller, 91, who lives not too far away in Homestead and helped lead the fight to preserve the pristine archipelago. "You just go out there and sit in a boat and listen to the quiet. It's good for the soul. So few places you can do that anymore."

Back in 1960, the conservationists sought to protect the islands from the proposed construction of a nearby oil refinery and seaport and also from grand plans to blanket tiny, 7-mile Elliott Key in luxury hotels, shopping centers and beachfront homes.

Thirteen of the islands' 18 registered voters, all of them landowners who wanted development, cast ballots (in a ballot box ferried by boat) to incorporate Islandia, as they called it. Incorporation, they figured, was a sure way to skirt state and federal zoning rules and to secure a causeway that would cross the bay from the mainland.

Luther L. Brooks, a politically connected former bootlegger who once described a politician as "so crooked he can't wear his shoes," became Islandia's first mayor. No sooner was he elected than he began to call in favors from politicians to help develop the island. His day job was collecting rent from half of Miami's black population, living in segregated housing.

By 1963, the landowners had persuaded the Florida governor to spearhead construction of the causeway. Development seemed inevitable. "One day for sure there will be a causeway to Islandia," a Miami Herald editorial predicted.

But conservationists, including Juanita Greene, a Herald reporter (and girlfriend of Brooks) pulled together their own savvy team. Miller contacted Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior, a staunch environmentalist. He sent aides to look at Elliott Key and decided it was worth saving.

Rep. Dante B. Fascell, the late Democratic congressman, was persuaded to join the effort, and began to push for a law to turn the island and its underwater acres into a federal park.

"Then Hoover arrived," said Miller, of Herbert Hoover Jr., the head of the vacuum cleaner company, "and so did his money."

Hoover had fallen in love with Biscayne Bay as a child, when lobster and shrimp coated the ocean floor. He wanted the chain declared a national monument and underwrote the campaign.

Nothing could slow the movement to conserve the islands, not even an announcement made in 1967 by Albert C. Bostwick Jr., an heir to the Standard Oil Co. fortune. His plan to build a splashy marina with cottages, villas and dock spaces on Elliott Key never got off the ground. In 1968, Islandia officials made one final incursion. They brought bulldozers by barge to Elliott Key and ordered workers to cut a 125-foot-wide strip across the island. It was a makeshift road meant to scar the island enough to sour the federal government. Spite Highway, it was dubbed, and its remnants remain today.

Several months later, in October 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill to turn much of Islandia into a national monument. It later became Biscayne National Park.

Today, two of the 33 islands remain in private hands. Of Islandia's five residents, three are park employees, one is married to a park worker and one is a private resident.

Deb Johnson, the wife of one of the park workers, stood outside her house on tiny Adams Key gardening on a postcard-ready day. Butterflies and egrets alighted nearby. Her front yard is the Atlantic Ocean. She has one neighbor, a park ranger. She watches the sunrise from her dock every morning and sits mesmerized by lightning storms in the evenings.

Residents here need to be hardy, though. Milk and bread are a boat ride away. Winter is perfect. Summer is not.

"I have to wear a bug suit," she said. It looks like a beekeeper's suit and it keeps out the mosquitoes that swarm. She cannot leave the house without it during the summer.

"It's not always paradise," she said, on a balmy, sunny February morning. "Right now it is."

The place is so beautiful that the people who leave do not often do so by choice. One of Islandia's would-be developers and its final mayor, Jack Pyms, sought unsuccessfully for years to build hundreds of stilt homes on his island. In 1990, he lost his property to foreclosure. Shortly after, he moved to Colorado and won the state lottery.

Islandia, the Florida that never was, soon to be no more 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 3:30am]

    

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