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Conservationists Race Billionaires To Buy Private Island In Miami

Exclusive island addresses are embedded in Miami’s culture. Indian Creek is known as Billionaire Bunker. Fisher Island, accessible only by boat, is the third most expensive ZIP code in the U.S. 

But none can offer the privacy of 1 Bird Key, an uninhabited island south of North Bay Village that recently hit the market for $31.5M. 

Bird Key's three islands span 4 acres and are zoned for residential development.

The island, spanning 4 acres and located 500 yards offshore to the south of the 79th Street Causeway, is being marketed by Compass’ Audrey Ross as the only privately owned island with residential zoning in Miami. But the listing has environmentalists crying foul over the loss of a natural bird habitat. 

“No traffic or people,” boasts Ross’ listing, which was first reported by the Miami New Times

The property is owned by Finlay Matheson, whose family has a long history of land preservation in the region. Miami-Dade County’s first public park, Matheson Hammock, was made possible with an 85-acre donation from William and Hugh Matheson in 1930. 

Finlay Matheson paid $36K in 1986 to acquire Bird Key, which includes the island and 37 acres of surrounding land submerged under Biscayne Bay, the Miami Herald reported

"[Bird Key] has been sitting idle for a long time. There's lots of activity on the market," Matheson told the Miami New Times. "Now's the time."

Building on the island will prove challenging and costly. It floods during high tide, is covered in protected mangroves and surrounded by protected seagrass, both habitats for migrating birds, per the Herald. Any construction on the island would require building on stilts or pouring tons of rockfill to create dry land. 

The listing went live on April 26, and Matheson told the Herald about a month later that he’d received “a lot of attention,” including from international buyers. 

Environmental groups and preservationists are worried that development of the island would disrupt a key breeding ground for migratory birds. Herons, pelicans, cormorants and osprey are among the species that can be found there, but Matheson said the birds stopped nesting on the islands in 2019.

While zoned for residential development, the online listing says the property is a “golden opportunity” for a developer to acquire and preserve the land as part of an environmental mitigation agreement for a separate development. Matheson told the Herald in 2012 that such a land swap was the property’s “highest and best use.”  

The county has for decades marked the property for acquisition as part of its Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, and preservationists have campaigned for state or local authorities to buy and preserve the land.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Miami New Times her administration had offered to purchase the property as recently as last year, but the offer price “unfortunately did not meet the owner’s expectations.”

Matheson contended to the Herald that the county never provided a proposed price and said he’s never had a formal offer to buy the land from any environmental group or government agency. 

Levine Cava’s office is exploring new funding sources to acquire the property, according to the Miami New Times, and multiple environmental groups have also been exploring options to finance the acquisition, the Herald reported. Matheson told the Herald he’s open to a “reasonable” offer. 

Depending on the buyer, the island chain — which has no electricity, running water or sewage connections to the mainland — could remain a resting point for migrating birds or, as the online listing describes it, “Miami’s most exclusive address” surrounded by the “blue waters of the Bay.”