Fisher Island's Un-American Beaches

Tim Kiusalaas

How the Vanderbilt family's former private playground sparked a controversy over sand.

The exclusive Fisher Island, off the tip of South Beach, once served as the Vanderbilts’ private playground. But the sand on the island’s beaches today doesn’t date back to the Golden Age. In fact, it’s not even American.

In the 1990s the island was earmarked for luxury development: the 216-acre site would house mansions, and the onetime Vanderbilt compound was to become part of the Fisher Island Club, a private resort. The only obstacle to attracting the jet set? The beaches were poor.

According to Miami-Dade County environmental expert Brian Flynn, the solution was to ship in sand from the Bahamas. Developers could do this because the “beach renourishment” was privately funded; federal programs can’t currently import sand—a law that U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel is lobbying to revoke. Any time South Beach has needed sand, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has retrieved some from the ocean floor about two miles offshore—a source now off-limits for conservation purposes.

If Frankel’s efforts succeed, then South Beach’s sand could become international, too.