Florida Keys News
Monday, June 9, 2014
Beachgoers blast Navy project
Wetlands, runway project call for tree removal

In the days before the modern Overseas Highway, old State Road 4A followed the southern shoreline of Geiger Key to Boca Chica Key, where it eventually crossed over to Stock Island and followed what is now Maloney and McDonald avenues before linking back up with the old Overseas Railway route to Key West.

The old bridge linking Boca Chica Key and Stock Island is no more, but people are still drawn to Boca Chica Beach along the old State Road 4A (now called Boca Chica Road) where it's usually free of tourist mobs.

Online social commentators call the beach a great place to spot wildlife, walk the dog and chat with the occasional nudist.

Brian Stewart is one of many who have been enjoying the beach at the end of Old Boca Chica Road for years. He noted another aspect of the beach that's hard to miss.

"If you love jet noise, this the place to be," Stewart said. "I love jet noise and I'm not anti-Navy. I love living near a military installation, but this big project caught me by surprise. I tend to look after this beach and I've become sort of the volunteer manager here."

Stewart lamented: "It's been like this for years," Stewart said referencing the many Jamaican dogwood trees and other vegetation near the end of the road. "It's been like this for decades without any problems and we're concerned about further diminishment of these facilities."

That "big project" that concerns Stewart is the $50 million wetlands restoration and runway safety project that's been 10 years in the making at Boca Chica Field. Officials from Naval Air Station Key West say it will restore many salt marsh vegetation habitats around the airfield and bring it up to date in terms of federal safety standards.

Stewart and others said the project is threatening their corner of paradise.

The Airfield Environmental Mitigation Project took flight more than 10 years ago when the Navy began the permitting process via the Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps of Engineers to remove mangroves and buttonwood trees near the edges of runways deemed to be a flight hazard.

It was done primarily to make sure the airfield was in compliance with both FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and Navy requirements for the operation of a safe airport, said Naval Air Station Key West Environmental Director Ed Barham.

In order to comply, however, the Navy was required to remove the mangroves and other vegetation while being in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, and so began years of working with the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get the work done.

Workers replant marsh plants, grasses and other vegetation that are historically native to the area as well as connecting those wetlands that used to be connected in order to meet federal environmental mitigation guidelines. The Navy planted wetlands and other vegetation elsewhere on base property to mitigate the removal of the ones at Boca Chica Beach as part of that mandate, Barham said.

Typically, an airport will put in low-growing grass and mow it, thus providing an unobstructed level-view of the runway. The environmental aspects of Boca Chica Key (the proximity of the ocean, in other words) made that impossible, Barham said.

The Navy is nearing completion of the project, which is on track to be finished by September, said NAS Key West Executive Director Ron Demes.

The southern edge of Runway No. 1331 at Boca Chica Field sits near Monroe County-owned Boca Chica Road and the beach that remains open for public use, where Stewart and others regularly visit.

Much of the trees and vegetation that provide shade for visitors will be lost when the Navy flattens the area to meet what the federal government calls Airfield Clearance Criteria.

It also remains to be seen whether the concrete barricade at the end of the widened area that's used as an informal parking lot will have to be pushed back, Barham said.

"Right now we're just focusing on getting the trees removed and as far as parking and the barricade goes, that's something we will be working with the county on," Barham said. "We're not pursuing that right now. Ideally, there would be no cars parking in the clear zone, but for right now we're just focusing on the trees."

Navy planners are in the process of meeting with Monroe County officials over how to proceed as the Navy has leased a portion of the area to Monroe County, though it still owns the property, Demes said.

The government parties are still hammering out how that process will work at the county government administrative level, Barham said Thursday while walking through the area.

He added that the Navy is technically not expanding its clear safety zones at the edge of the runway, but maintaining them. The confusion perhaps lies in the fact that it's taken 10 years to figure how this would work with all the myriad federal government agencies at play in such a grand project.

And construction work has been ongoing for more than two years, but has only encroached on Boca Chica Beach in recent months.

"It's frustrating to all of us who come out here and I've been coming here for 40 years," said one person who wished to remain anonymous. "It's one of the last, beautiful spots that hasn't been turned into a Walt Disney World."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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