Herbert Hoover and the lost city of Islandia

A few weeks ago, a reader asked us if we could cover a commissioner’s meeting about the creation of a few new cities in Miami-Dade. It seemed interesting enough, so when the meeting rolled around last week, I grabbed a seat in the commissioners’ chamber.

Most of the meeting was driven by locals who want to incorporate their neighborhoods. But one person had a curious question: “Has a city ever been un-incorporated?” The board seemed stumped, but one commissioner knew the answer: Islandia.

His answer lingered in the air for a minute, then the meeting moved on. But it wasn’t over then and it still isn’t over.

Later, while working on my story, I noticed the county map had an extra number. (Cue suspense music and a whiteboard calculus montage)

I checked the list. Then I cross-checked it. Then I cross-cross-checked it. I couldn’t figure out the source of the extra municipality. But then I noticed something peculiar: the number 29 was missing.

“Someone must have goofed,” I thought.

But when we published the story Monday, one of you had an alternative explanation: could it be Islandia?

It was back. A mysterious chill settled over The New Tropic’s office. This time it would not be forgotten.

We set out to solve our first Miami Mystery: What happened to Islandia?

Islandia was only a city in Miami-Dade County for 50 years, but its history is older than the state of Florida itself. And while it’s kind of an extreme example, the reason Islandia came into existence is a reminder of why the county needs to give careful consideration for various areas’ reasons for incorporating – it might have nothing to do with the public good.

Between the 1500s and the 1800s, the islands in the northernmost Florida Keys were a haven for refugees of shipwrecks, as well as a fishing area for Tequesta Native Americans, the region’s first inhabitants. By the 1860s, settlers from the Bahamas were trying to farm the land, but because it was made up of coral rock, that didn’t work so well.

Still, by 1906, nearly 100 people had come to call the 33 islands in the northern Keys, including Totten and Elliot, home. In the 1960s, as developers began to capitalize on Miami’s beautiful shore, a dream began taking shape: turning those islands into a tropical resort getaway. They would call it “Islandia.”

On June 22, 1961, 13 of Islandia’s 18 voters raised their hands for incorporation, pretty much just so they could develop it and swim in that sweet, sweet tourism dough.

And they would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Herbert Hoover, Jr., according to this excellent feature by WLRN’s Sammy Mack.

Islandia had sentimental value to Hoover, the vacuum cleaner king (no relation to the former U.S. prez, btw). Hoover didn’t want the islands to look like another Miami Beach, so he sponsored boat tours for government officials to show them how pristine and beautiful the islands were. Meanwhile, environmental activists pushed to make the Keys and Biscayne Bay a national monument to protect it from development.

The first and only Islandia mayor, Luther L. Brooks, who was a pretty seedy politician it seems, fought back. Brooks bulldozed a six-lane highway straight through the land and named it Spite Highway in a dig at the preservationists.

In a rare win for nature, in 1968 the federal government purchased all but five of the 33 islands, turning most of Islandia into what we now know as Biscayne National Park.

But technically, a little bit of the city of Islandia remained — the smallest and arguably most dysfunctional city in the county. In 1990, the state attorney’s office found that the city’s small government was doing a lot of illegal things. Its dissolution followed. In 2011, with just six residents left (most of them Biscayne National Park employees), the county commissioners voted unanimously to abolish the city. On March 16, 2012, Islandia was dissolved into unincorporated Miami-Dade.

The story of Islandia is one for the books — a rare case of environmental protection trouncing development in Miami-Dade.

But we never did figure out what’s up with that missing 29. (The list goes in order of incorporation, so Islandia would have fallen into the 28 spot.) Someone probably just goofed. If you know the backstory, fill me in. That map itch wasn’t totally scratched.

UPDATE: One of our readers did some pretty incredible investigative work. He solved the mystery of the missing number 29.  It was indeed Islandia.

See the explanation below:
Islandia was indeed #29. You can see evidence from the Property Appraiser’s websitehttp://www.miamidade.gov/propertysearch/#/

The two left-most digits of the folio number correspond to the municipal code numbers listed on the map (e.g. 01 = Miami, 04 = Hialeah). Part of Biscayne Nat’l Park previously existed on folio 29-6229-000-0022. Since the un-incorporation it was reassigned to 30-6229-000-0022. This change can also be seen in the legal description the Property Appraiser provides on the webpage.

Another city that was un-incorporated is Pennsuco. It used to sit on #20 of the municipal code list (now Pinecrest). It was around the area of where Okeechobee Rd meets the Turnpike.

Miami’s full of mysteries and we want to help you solve them. Comment below with your unanswered questions and we’ll investigate. Get weird.