Conservation Groups File Lawsuit Against the Department of the Interior, Park Service

Date:   May 14, 2001
Contact:   Mary Munson, National Parks Conservation Association, cell phone 954-649-6327

Conservation Groups File Lawsuit Against the Department of the Interior, Park Service

Miami, FL - The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Tropical Audubon Society announced today they have filed a lawsuit against the U. S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, challenging the March 30, 2001, agreement by Interior and the Park Service to a third extension of private leases at Stiltsville within Biscayne National Park that would allow the present lessees to retain exclusive use of Stiltsville until April 1, 2002.

"Today marks the day we stand up and say enough is enough," said Mary Munson, director of NPCA's South Florida and Marine Programs. "The settlement undermines an ongoing process to identify public uses for Stiltsville and benefits a politically influential, privileged group of Miami residents who have already had a cushy deal for well over 25 years."

The lawsuit asserts that the government's action illegally violates the Park Service's organic act which requires public access to park property, as well as the Biscayne National Park's own General Management Plan which requires removing the structures upon expiration of the leases. The suit seeks to force the park to open Stiltsville to the public. If the park is unwilling to open the structures to the public, the environmental organizations point out that the park's plan calls for the structures to be removed. The lawsuit charges the Department of the Interior with violating the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by granting exclusive privileges to private leaseholders at the expense of the public and maintains that an Environmental Impact Statement should have been completed before agreeing to the settlement.

Located in the northern part of the Biscayne National Park, Stiltsville's submerged lands and water provide habitat for lobsters, sponges, threatened corals and queen conchs, and endangered sea turtles and is covered with sea grass--a vital component of the marine ecosystem. Within this area, seven parcels contain structures used as recreational retreats. The sites were leased to the users when the land belonged to the state of Florida. The renters have erected weekend retreats on stilts in the bay, giving the area its common name, Stiltsville. Florida turned the land over to the Park Service in 1980 for national park status. The Park Service honored the leases, but under the original terms of the 1976 leases, the leaseholders knew they would have to turn their structures over to the park when the leases expired in July 1999.

The park superintendent has appointed an advisory committee to recommend alternative public use for the Stiltsville homes. The committee is holding its second meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, May 15.

Florida congressional representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district includes a small section of Biscayne National Park, has introduced legislation to remove public land from the park to allow the Stiltsville leaseholders to acquire permanent rights. Congressman Peter Deutsch, whose district also includes a portion of the park, opposes the legislation.

"The government's action is illegal and has the appearance of bestowing political favors," said Munson. "These people are squatters. Their leases expired two years ago! It is mind boggling that the Department of the Interior and members of Congress are helping them take over national park lands that belong to all Americans. We have no choice but to object in the strongest possible way."

For a copy of the complaint contact Paul J. Schwiep, Esq., Aragon, Burlington, Weil & Crockett, P.A., at 305-858-2900 or by cell phone at 305-495-3833.


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