Florida stilt houses: eco-blight or treasures?

Congressional decision over private structures on government land could set precedent for other cases.

From the time of Prohibition to reruns of TV's "Miami Vice," a group of houses built on wooden pilings in the shallow flats of Biscayne Bay has captured the imagination of local residents and tourists.

It is called Stiltsville. And its future is at the center of a debate now under way in Congress over whether the privately owned structures on federal land should be demolished as an environmental blight or preserved as a cultural and historic treasure.

There appears to be little middle ground in the debate, and it remains unclear which side will win. But how the issue is resolved may set an important precedent for how the federal government deals in the future with more than 1,000 individuals nationwide who are currently living with special permission on national park land.

At issue is the fate of seven weekend houses built on stilts above environmentally fragile sea grass beds that lie between the ocean and the bay in Biscayne National Park, southeast of Miami.

"There aren't that many marine parks in the country, and this one is unique and very beautiful," says Mary Munson of the National Parks Conservation Association, which supports removal of Stiltsville. "We firmly believe that, like any park, the purpose of this park is to maintain the ecological integrity of the area, and we firmly believe that purpose should be respected."

No contradiction

But others see no contradiction in maintaining both the stilt houses and the fragile ecosystem around them. Supporters of Stiltsville say the structures have self-contained sewerage and waste-water systems and that the pilings attract fish.

In addition, they say the stilt houses have irreplaceable historic value.

"The Stiltsville houses have fascinated countless tourists and boaters for generations. To have them torn down by the National Park Service will be a real loss to the salty cultural history of Miami and Biscayne Bay," says Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust.

Fishing shacks and houses erected on pilings have existed in the Biscayne shallows as far back as the 1920s, according to some accounts. The area provided a hard-to-raid site for a speak-easy during Prohibition, and later a unique setting for various social clubs. At its most populous in the 1950s, Stiltsville included 27 structures. But hurricanes have left only seven standing.

For decades, the owners leased the half-acre of sea bottom under each house from the State of Florida. But in 1980, the area became part of Biscayne National Park, and owners were given notice that their leases would expire in July 1999. The eviction date has twice been extended, with a new final deadline set for Dec. 1.

Save our Stiltsville

With that date fast approaching, US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida has proposed a plan that would carve circular zones of private property out of the national park so that the owners may keep their houses.

When that proposal met with opposition from the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, who is chairman of the national parks subcommittee, set out his own plan - to lop off a 3,900-acre chunk of the national park and turn it over to the State of Florida, which has expressed its willingness to allow Stiltsville to remain.

Next week, the House Resources Committee will debate the proposals.

Supporters of Stiltsville are hopeful that an accommodation can be arranged. Opponents view the process as special legislation aimed at benefiting a few privileged constituents to the detriment of members of the nation as a whole.

"These are basically weekend retreats and vacation getaways," says Ms. Munson. "As much as people say this is a piece of history, it is actually a piece of legislation that is protecting a few [structures] for the benefit of some very fortunate people."

She calls the plan to save Stiltsville a "giveaway" of protected federal land to private interests.

Ms. Matkov says preserving the structures will benefit all of south Florida rather than being a special favor to a few house owners. "This pales in comparison to some of the inequities and the preferential treatment we have seen in parks across the country for big corporations, big businesses, and mining companies," she says.

Among congressional opponents of the plan to carve Stiltsville out of the national park is Rep. Peter Deutsch (D) of Florida, who represents most of the area covered by Biscayne National Park. Representative Deutsch has spoken out against surrendering to private individuals land that Congress had earlier determined was ecologically important and worthy of protection as a national park.

Stiltsville supporters have attempted to head off demolition by having the houses declared national historic landmarks. But that effort failed because none of the seven remaining structures is more than 50 years old.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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