Published Thursday, June 17, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Stiltsville is useful

Thank heaven for Stiltsville.

That's what I remember thinking during a violent, out-of-nowhere summer storm many years ago. My son and I were huddled in a 14-foot aluminum skiff, tied beneath a peeling A-frame house where we had hastily taken refuge. The wind gusted above 50 mph, salt spray lashed our cheeks, and lightning blasted all around.

But we felt safer beneath that old lodge. We couldn't outrun the weather, and it was the only place to hide. That wasn't the first or the last time that thunder chased us there.

In two weeks, unless something dramatic occurs, Stiltsville becomes Death Row-on-the-Bay, seven doomed wood cottages on pilings in the shallows off Cape Florida.

The houses stand in sight of Miami's skyline, but also inside the boundaries of Biscayne National Park -- and the park service says private homes don't belong there.

A bid to save Stiltsville as a historic site was rebuffed, and a grass-roots petition has so far failed to touch the glacial heart of the federal bureaucracy. Leases on the properties expire July 1, after which the owners will be required to pay for razing the structures and removing the debris.

Rules are rules, and it's unfair to lay all of the blame on park Superintendent Dick Frost. He's sort of stuck. Just because something looks quaint, or makes a convenient storm shelter, doesn't mean it automatically merits exception.

But if you were making a list of all the threats to Biscayne National Park, Stiltsville wouldn't be on it. In fact, you could argue that tearing down the houses will cause far more environmental havoc than leaving them.

No body of water in North America attracts more certifiable morons in high-powered yachts and speedboats than Biscayne Bay. Most of them don't know the difference between a channel marker and a lobster pot, but they know a double-decker house when they see one looming off their bow.

In that way, Stiltsville has become a useful landmark for boaters trying to navigate the winding finger channels in the eastern bay. Level the houses, and watch what happens to the surrounding fragile flats.

Vessel groundings, already a serious problem, are bound to increase. So will scarring damage to the sea grasses, marl banks and tidal cuts.

Better warning signs and buoys might help, but not much. Unfortunately, there are too many inept boaters with too much horsepower and too much beer at their fingertips.

If the park service really wants to do something to help Biscayne Bay, it ought to hire about a dozen more rangers and turn them loose on Sand Cut every Sunday.

There, at the narrow pass between Sand Key and Elliott Key, you'll sometimes see 100-plus boats beached or even anchored on the flats, with Jet Skis drag-racing up and down the channel. Folks hop out and plant their patio chairs in the sea grass, unleash the family mutt, crank up the radio, crack open a six-pack.

This is a ``national park''? More like the parking lot at a Jets-Dolphins game.

Such a scene wouldn't be tolerated on the peak of Mount McKinley or the rim of the Grand Canyon. Those are national parks, too. Are the islands and coves of Biscayne Bay less of a treasure, less worthy of reverence and protection?

As putative custodian of the bay, the park service could justify saving Stiltsville purely for its value as a navigational aid that keeps wayward mariners off the tidal banks. Razing the houses will only make park waters more trammeled, and more imperiled.

Seven old lodges on pilings might not be natural, but they're infinitely more compatible with nature than the marauding mayhem at Sand Cut. Only in balmy Washington would they disagree.