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Stock Island road abandonment challenge continues

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Monroe County government and two property owners for an approval the county commission gave granting a road abandonment on Stock Island to the owners, but the plaintiffs have asked for rehearing on the issue.

Circuit Court Judge Tim Koenig ruled the court does not have jurisdiction “because the petitioners lack standing and the extraordinary relief sought is unavailable,” he wrote in his ruling.

“Since road abandonment is a legislative act, it is not proper subject of petition for an extraordinary remedy,” Koenig stated.

The plaintiffs in the case, Diane Beruldsen and Aramis Ikatu, asserted the road abandonment was quasi-judicial, but one of the property owners contended it was a legislative act and the court can’t rule in the case.

An attorney for Beruldsen and Ikatu have filed a motion for the judge to rehear the challenge, arguing “the burden of proof indicates a quasi-judicial procedure,” the motion for rehearing stated.

“Quasi-judicial act means the action of public officers applying regulations or rules to facts determined through a decision-making process,” attorney Ronald Strauss wrote.

An attorney for the developers has filed a motion against the motion for rehearing.

“The petitioners do not seem to understand that they filed an appeal (a petition for writ of certiorari) with this court in its capacity as an appellate court, and neither cited the appropriate rule for rehearing nor followed its exacting requirements,” attorney Bart Smith wrote.

In July, the commission approved abandoning its right-of-way rights to waterfront portions of Laurel and MacDonald avenues to the developers of the 208-unit Wreckers Cay affordable housing project on Stock Island and to the owners of Murray Marine marina. Both roads lead to a small spit of land the Wreckers Cay developers say they need as part of their development.

Strauss, on behalf of Beruldsen and Ikatu, filed a petition for writ of certiorari and mandamus, asking a state court judge to reverse the commission’s decision.

“The County Commission just gave away the last of the public access to open water on Stock Island to two developers,” Beruldsen said at the time the lawsuit was filed. “Looks like the commission thinks only tourists and wealthy homeowners with waterfront private property should get to access the water in Stock Island.”

Both Laurel Avenue and MacDonald Avenue lead to the filled spits of land that extend into Boca Chica Bay. The spits are used by the public for swimming, picnicking and family events, while live-aboard boaters dock their dinghies there for access to shopping and getting to work, Beruldsen and Ikatu said.

Ikatu is fighting the road abandonment approvals because he would not be able to access his live-aboard houseboat if the developers close off the land to the public, he said.

The two residents are also seeking the county to order Murray Marine to remove a fence it erected in the Laurel Avenue right-of-way, which blocks off public access to the water. They allege Murray Marine has also built unpermitted docks attached to the right-of-way, uses it for boat racks and has built a shed there as well, and denies the public access to public property.


Floating rental fleet pares two barrel boats, pirate ship

South Shore Rentals, a Canadian company offering vacation rental houseboats, has pared down its fleet following a recent vessel inspection by state law enforcement officers on Lake Surprise in Key Largo and surrounding waters.

The West Barrel Boat, East Barrel Boat and the Pirate Ship have been removed from state waters, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Bobby Dube.

“They didn’t meet the definition of a vessel, so they were removed,” he said.

South Shore Rentals began anchoring its rental fleet in Key Largo’s bayside waters in the months following Hurricane Irma in 2017, amassing up to nine rentals in the area.

In a year-long process, South Shore Rentals first told the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that the then-illegal floating structures would be removed, but instead, months later, the company met compliancy with state and federal authorities by retrofitting its rental fleet with steering, motors and installing a bay-bottom double-anchoring system.

The vessels were registered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and through the county’s short-term rental program.

“The department rules do not prohibit the anchoring of Florida-registered vessels on sovereignty submerged lands, but the department will continue to monitor this area and will address any activities that may cause impacts to environmental resources and water quality,” Alexandra Kuchta, a DEP spokeswoman previously stated.

FWC officer Paul Hein said a special detail, led by officer Mike McKay, has increased surveilling of Blackwater Sound and adjacent waters.

“This detail increased our presence and therefore increased our enforcement efforts,” Hein said. “There have been several boats removed from the waters to include the vessels that looked like barrels as well as the pirate ship among others.”

The Shark Pup, The Blue Marlin, Happy Crabby, Sea Turtle and Little Miss Sunshine remain in Lake Surprise after South Shore Rentals found the legal and financial means to stay anchored in the mangrove-encircled body of water at the southern end of the 18-Mile Stretch.

These rental vacation boats are “bareboat” charters, which means no licensed captain is required to ferry passengers from shore to the vessels. The renter assumes all responsibility, thus relieving the U.S. Coast Guard of ensuring licensure compliancy.

The vessels are registered to South Shore Rentals Ltd. or Benjamin Michael Clark, which share the same address in Harrow, Ontario, in Canada.


Childcare options, assistance abound in the Florida Keys

As parents seek to return to work, childcare options may be a conundrum. Yet, there are at least 25 centers throughout the Florida Keys ready to welcome children.

Some families may be eligible for financial support. While the federal median income wage for poverty, $39,300 per family, makes it difficult for families in the Florida Keys to qualify for free and reduced childcare payments, there are options and programs that aim to close the gap and get families the help they need so children can attend daycare and preschools. Help is available to assist parents so they can go to work knowing their children are safe with caring adults.

Assistance in paying for childcare exists through the Early Learning Coalition, which met online Oct. 23 to advocate for community support of its programs. Sandi Bisceglia, a retired teacher and principal from the Keys, said despite the continuing health crisis, it is in the community’s best interest to work toward maximizing opportunities for the Keys’ youngest children, who are the youngest learners and need to be supported and gain literacy skills, social skills and healthy habits, all of which daycare centers can provide.

Bisceglia, who has begun a three year-plus term on the coalition board, said [parents] “need to return to work and to know that they have a place to take their young pre-school-aged children that is inspected, insured, certified and safe.” A list of providers and an application is at http://www.vpkhelp.org.

Emilio Torres, who heads the Miami-Dade/Monroe Learning Coalition, conducted a Zoom meeting with Keys chambers of commerce directors, and the president of the Upper Keys Business and Professional Women, the largest BPW club in the state with l00 members. “To continue to help support whatever is needed from both groups to ultimately create good solutions for all,” Bisceglia said. “[W]e have a strong networking and communication system up and down the Keys to help us advocate for the welfare and safety of children.”

Torres said the ELC is in the business of “education and talent supply with a focus on children 0 [to] 5,” although they care for children to the age of 12. ELC seeks to close the learning gap of children in lower-income families by promoting a high-quality inclusive school readiness, voluntary pre-kindergarten and after school programs, thus increasing all children’s chances of success and becoming productive members of society. Literacy is deemed especially important.

One way the ELC achieves its goals is through influencing public policies; however, this past year’s legislative efforts did not pass. Torres said the ELC is involved in the legislative process every year. Funded by taxpayers, Torres said, “We want to give taxpayers return on investment.”

The ELC met with heads of the chambers and BPW because Florida law requires more than one-third of each coalition’s members be business members, and of the 1,450 early learning programs in Miami-Dade and Monroe, most are family-owned and operated small businesses.

ELC’s three main programs are early head start for those zero to three years old which currently serves 750 children; voluntary pre-kindergarten which serves 4- and 5-year-olds totaling 22,000 children in Dade and Monroe, and school readiness which uses vouchers and is for those zero to 12 whose families meet the $39,300 or less threshold. This program serves 23,000 children currently.

Monroe can be proud of its early learning achievements. A study on English language arts achievement shows that third-graders tested in Keys schools annually score higher than the state average of 59% passing with a 72% pass rate.

Torres said the key to success is to spend early and wisely because it saves on necessary funding in later years.

The meeting’s conversation then focused on how chambers of commerce could collaborate with the ELC and help the centers fill the excess space with actively admitting kids.

Also shared was information that, because of COVID-19, if someone would like to obtain certification in childcare, classes can be taken online.

ELC has offices in Key Largo in the Pink Plaza, as well as in Marathon and Key West.


Key West Dist. 6 race comes down to wire

With only a few days until the general election, it is down to the wire for the one local candidate race in Key West.

Besides the cruise ship referenda, on which only Key West residents can vote, the one other local race is between incumbent city Commissioner Clayton Lopez and challenger Dr. Ryan Barnett for the District 6 city commission seat. Lopez, who has held that seat since 2005, is looking for election to what would be his final term before term limits preclude another run. Barnett, a local chiropractor who showed surprising strength by forcing a run-off vote after placing second in the August primary election, is running on a small business platform, promising new energy and increased focus on District 6 issues.

The race is particularly vigorous and sometimes contentious, but both candidates have had to deal with unheard-of challenges caused by the coronavirus, which has completely upended the usual campaign strategies. Unlike in the past, where a campaign would have built to a peak on Election Day, the huge increase in the number of people voting early either in person or by absentee ballot was up to 52% in Monroe County as of Wednesday. supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin said she was busy canvasing voters and had not yet crunched the specific ballot count in Key West but long lines of people waiting to vote early in-person have been reported.

That unprecedented surge in early voting, either in-person or by absentee ballot, has forced Lopez and Barnett to adjust their campaign strategies. Lopez ran a straight-forward campaign in the primary, when he faced two challengers, Barnett and John Wilson Smith. After the primary, however, Lopez said he has had to make some changes to his campaign style.

“We’ve had to depend a lot on social media, on creative IT [information technology],” he said. “Then there’s still some of the old-fashioned foot traffic that you have to do, like holding signs [at street intersections] and knocking on doors. But if someone answers, you have to step back.”

While Barnett, running for his first elected office, did not have previous experience to compare to, he said he realized even before he began campaigning in the general election that people were going to vote early. He said he tailored the second, post-primary phase of his campaign to that mentality.

“It was important to reach out early, specifically, to say what the issues in District 6 were,” he said. “We email, we text. We talk on the phone.”

Barnett said after he won the run-off election, he first wrote a letter to district residents outlining details of the issues he wanted to tackle if elected. In addition to helping small business owners like himself recover from the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19, Barnett said his top issues include affordable workforce housing, historical preservation and increasing resources for local youth programs. He followed up the letter with telephone calls and a heavy use of social media, including campaign videos on his Facebook page. That focus on virtual media to reach voters was part of his campaign platform, he said, to create better and more frequent communications with district residents on city issues.

But the thing he said he was initially looking forward to, knocking on residents’ doors to talk to them in person, had to be dropped because of COVID-19.

“Social distancing has changed the landscape of this. I didn’t go door-to-door. Taking away that face-to-face was something I struggled with. It was what I would have enjoyed the most,” he said.

Lopez said he, too, enjoys having personal conversations on the campaign trail. But unlike Barnett, he said he has not given them up, sometimes just walking the streets in District 6 neighborhoods so people can talk to him if they want.

“I’ve pretty much made that my hallmark. I’m the guy you can call despite what we may disagree on. Nobody is as accessible as I am,” Lopez said.

As for who the eventually winner will be next Tuesday, both candidates are confident they will prevail.

“This is my first campaign but it is not the first race in my life. You end stronger than where you started,” Barnett said, referring to his background as a competitive runner and paddleboard enthusiast. “It’s been a great campaign. When you talk about buyer’s remorse, I have none.”

“It changes almost moment by moment,” Lopez said about his chances of winning, acknowledging a strong campaign from Barnett. “But I think I am on the top of it. And I think that’s where we’re going to end. But having to defend my accomplishments is not easy.”