The Biscayne Times

Apr 10th
Pelican Harbor Seabird Station Plans a Move PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
March 2020

From the bay to the river, with lots of room to grow

PPHSS_1elican Harbor Seabird Station is celebrating its 40th year of helping Florida wildlife.

Since 1980 the non-profit 501(c)(3) rescue and rehabilitation facility on Biscayne Bay has been active in the care and treatment of nearly 34,000 birds, reptiles, and mammals. That includes more than 225 species and over 23,000 animals native to Florida. In 2019 alone, the station saw a 38 percent increase in patients over the previous year, with 1973 patients of 124 species.

Pelican Harbor Seabird Station (PHSS) began when Darlene and Harry Kelton began living on a houseboat at Pelican Harbor Marina and came to the aid of brown pelicans hooked by fishing lures. A small shelter and cyclone fence enclosure led to a second pen built in 1990, and as the need for more space continued, sometimes the Keltons rehabbed pelicans in their houseboat bathroom.

In 1992, after first being offered a small piece of property next to the old Animal Services facility in west Dade, the county built a 950-square-foot building for PHSS on the marina site just off the 79th Street Causeway, which is a property belonging to Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces. PHSS leased the property for $25 a month for 20 years, with a ten-year extension that expires in July 2020. Today there are 4000 square feet of outdoor animal enclosures.

Every seasonal PHSS newsletter expresses gratitude for that relationship: “We are grateful to Miami-Dade County Parks Department for the use of the facility and for our partnership that has allowed us to focus on our mission and the well-being of our patients.”


As reported by the BT (“Taking Flight,” February 2017), groundbreaking for a new 1911-square-foot PHSS facility was expected sometime in 2017. Founder Kelton explained that the dream for a larger building began around 2008, with executive director Wendy Fox leading the effort. Longtime supporter James Lockwood bequeathed $500,000 for a new facility.

But as building plans were in the process of being approved, architect Steven Schwortz passed away, and in 2011, Fox died as well. These deaths were a huge setback to PHSS’s hopes of expansion.

With new executive director Christopher Boykin on board since 2014, revenues have grown and the center has maintained a Platinum-level GuideStar profile. A larger staff and volunteer corps have helped PHSS increase its rescue patient base and enhance educational outreach with animal ambassadors.

But construction plans were delayed again while negotiations continued with the county for a new long-term lease. Boykin asked for 50 years. Carol Keys, PHSS board member and North Miami councilwoman, tells the BT that only a short-term lease was offered -- not long enough to warrant spending millions of dollars to build the new facility. The county also wanted multiple termination clauses, involving oversight of PHSS management and of its foundation.

“Ultimately, these issues and delays were a good thing, as we have come to realize we need a great deal more space,” says Boykin. 

PHSS_3Both Boykin and Keys say that in county negotiations last summer, PHSS expressed the center’s need for a larger hospital and sufficient land for appropriately sized pens and aviaries. Boykin points out: “This would allow our medical staff to provide quality care and housing to our diverse patient load. We are the only native wildlife hospital in the greater Miami area and have had an exponential increase in patients over the last two decades.”

In response, the county offered to build a new PHSS facility on the north end of Haulover Park, although PHSS would have to pool all its capital campaign funds and share the space with a turtle center. Boykin asked for 3500 square feet, but it was never made clear that PHSS would get that. He realized that the proposed new site wouldn’t allow for future growth. Moreover, Haulover was vulnerable to hurricane damage and flooding.

The PHSS board of directors approved the search for another location. In the PHSS fall 2019 newsletter, it was announced that the center was working on a new expansion plan away from the county park marina location.

“It is a bittersweet realization that we have outgrown the property and facility generously provided by Miami-Dade County back in 1992,” the announcement read. “We are working out the details for our new larger home with more room to provide professional care for the diverse species we are charged and privileged to care for.”

Founder Kelton endorsed the search for a place to grow.

PHSS_4Early this year, PHSS closed on purchasing the future site of its wildlife rehabilitation and educational nature center. Located at 399 NE 82nd Terr. and at 2.6 acres in size, it is a Tequesta Indian archeological site called Little River Preserve, where 82nd Street crosses the Little River. It is a parcel once owned by the Miami-pioneer Tuttle family.

To the east of the property are the FEC railroad tracks and the Little River salinity dam. The river bends, and 338 feet of waterfront frame the north side of the parcel. It’s only one mile west of the current PHSS location.

Says Boykin: “Thirteen current Pelican Harbor Seabird Stations would fit on this property.”

One week after the closing, Boykin led the BT on a tour of the property, lush with native black olive, gumbo limbo, sea grape, oak, and palms. His enthusiasm for the new digs is evident while pointing out yellow-bellied sapsucker holes on a black olive trunk, resurrection ferns sprouting from a cascading oak branch, bees nesting in a tree crevice, zebra butterflies, and an occasional overhead fly-by of black vultures. At the water’s edge, Boykin reaches out to hold on to one of several pond apple trees, which are also found in the Everglades.

“This is one of the last natural shorelines in the area,” he explains, as most river banks now have sea walls. “The elevation here is 7.7 feet. We’ll feel safer [from storms and flooding] here than in Haulover.” Boykin says he looked at a lot of properties and is thrilled with this partially wooded waterfront find in Miami.

Tequesta once inhabited the land, as evidenced by 2019 archeological discoveries led by the renowned archaeologist Robert Carr, who was hired by PHSS. Tequesta artifacts from 750-950 A.D., such as pottery shards, have been excavated there. During future PHSS construction on the site, an archeologist must be present at all times. Boykin hopes to display the found items at the center as part of an educational program.

Boykin lays out the recent history of Little River Preserve: PHSS purchased the property from Little River LLC, owned by George and Katia Traikos, who planned to develop it as a 47-unit housing project. According to the Little River Conservancy, in 2005 the Trust for Public Land was interested in purchasing Little River Preserve but declined when arsenic was found in the soil. Little River LLC removed 460 tons of polluted soil on the site in 2017. Out of 15 new site samples tested for ten metals and pesticides in January, three had detectable arsenic levels. That soil will be removed and a clean layer of fill will be added, as required by county laws.

PHSS paid $2.4 million for the Little River Preserve; the Deeks Family Foundation provided the majority of the funds. Boykin anticipates construction to cost around $7 million: $500,000 from James E. Lockwood; matching grants of $3 million from the Deeks Family Foundation and $1 million from the Batchelor Foundation have been pledged. Additional sponsor partners will complete the capital campaign.

PHSS staff met at the river property for a brainstorming conference to discuss plans for the future nature center. Boykin envisions a 6000-square-foot, two-story building and roof deck for the animal hospital and education center that will feature artwork of extinct animal species. Re-creating a Tequesta hut or a mini Miami Circle is under discussion. An observation tower will enhance the viewing of manatees on the river, and the entire property will serve as a nature park with a walking trail for public enjoyment. There will be triple the square footage of animal pen enclosures, and the permanent animal ambassadors will be housed apart from the rehabbing animals, which will be protected by sound-mitigation walls to the east along the FEC tracks. Boykin tells the BT donors and staff are excited.

Native trees will be preserved during construction. There will be bat boxes to help with mosquitoes, and outdoor sculptures will add to the grace of this oasis. Campfire evening lectures and canoe trips are a possibility.

PHSS is still negotiating with Miami-Dade on a two-year lease extension and option to extend another year at the current Pelican Harbor Marina site, which will need to go into effect in July. Councilwoman Keys is optimistic: “PHSS has been in lease negotiations with the county for two to three years. We’ve been a good tenant. We’re also a ‘do-good-feel-good’ for the county, and hopeful for this lease extension.”

The Little River property will have to be rezoned from residential to commercial use. Architectural plans will have to be drawn and approved. PHSS is expecting at least a couple of years before relocation. “Now we have our own land and the room to grow,” says a relieved Boykin.

On April 14, PHSS will participate in the annual Little River Cleanup, sponsored by the Little River Conservancy. PHSS’s annual gala fundraiser, Pelican Party, has been rescheduled for November 14. Anyone interested in sponsoring a bird aviary, pen, or room in the new building can reach out to Boykin for a site visit.


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