A contingent of Lower Keys and Key West residents took the fight for home rule to the state Capitol Wednesday.
But despite the impassioned appeals by the mayor of Key West and two dozen Key West and Lower Keys fishermen and residents, the state Senate Rules Committee passed a bill Wednesday to overturn a successful Key West voter referendum that limited the size and number of cruise ships.
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston and the contingent dispelled allegations that the referendum is to limit various socio-economic classes of people coming to Key West. They argued the referendum was passed to protect the Key West residents’ and tourists’ quality of life and the fragile coral reef ecosystem.
Several members of the group cited a recently released study by Florida International University that found improvements in water quality and the health of corals around Key West in the past year since cruise industry was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Johnston called Key West one of the “most inclusive cities in the country” when it comes to welcoming visitors. She argued that many businesses are “retooling their marketing plans and embracing smaller groups” since the pandemic and are now having a “record year” with “less customers buying more.”
Big mega cruise ships were dropping off too many visitors and it was impacting the quality of life for all, Johnston said.
Lower Keys commercial fishermen Jack Davis called SB 426 the product of big out-of-town and out-of-country corporations that don’t care about residents’ quality of life and the environment.
“We are not the rich elite,” Davis said. “We are blue-collar business owners. The rich elite is who is lobbying these accusations.”
Davis spoke of the need to protect the Keys’ fragile water quality, as it is the economic engine for the chain of islands.
“These waters have provided for us,” Davis said.
Key West businessmen Danny Hughes, who owns Two Friends Patio Restaurant, and attorney Michael Halpern, who owns several storefronts on Duval Street, spoke in favor of the bill. Halpern argued the referendums, which changed the city charter, will be devastating to local businesses such as the Hemingway House and the Butterfly Conservatory.
Halpern pushed the narrative that the referendum was meant to keep some classes of visitors of Key West.
Later in the day, Johnston and opponents of the bill continued their fight of SB 426 by taking their plea to the Governor’s Mansion, where they held a news conference. The mayor and members of the group that proposed the referendum wanted to meet with the governor, but the meeting could not be arranged.
“The sense that we have had is that the legislators, those who are advancing the bill and keep voting for this bill, are in the pockets of the cruise industry and big lobbying interest here,” Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West-based Cleaner Safer Ships, said at the news conference. “This is a bad bill that will wreck the reef.”
The parks and beaches director position recently roused from Monroe County’s pre-COVID-19 budget and posted on the county website netted 24 applicants, of which 15 meet the minimum qualifications.
The request for a countywide director was made by Monroe County Commissioner Mike Forster, who had been lobbied by Tavernier residents concerned with overuse at Harry Harris Park.
“I know the county had posted the job last year before COVID hit and from what I understand they had 84 applicants. The time has come to concentrate on the parks within the county,” Forster said.
The director would work with the county’s public works department and the administration staff to provide greater oversight of county parks as well as to institute park programming.
“It was five or six years ago that we first thought to bring someone in. We want someone to come in and take the parks to the next level,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “There are pieces of a parks and rec department throughout a few departments already. ... Once we have a department, we can apply for grants.”
County Mayor Michelle Coldiron said she receives phone calls at least weekly concerning county parks and how to integrate programs for children and adults.
“I look at us living in the Keys and our cost of living is so expensive. All of us as commissioners work on everything about affordable housing, then the next component is what do people do when they get done with work when they are on a tight budget? We have 22 parks and beaches that need to be top notch,” she said.
The parks and beaches director job salary ranges between $97,667.53 and $156,268.04 for a 40-hour work week. A bachelor’s degree is required, while a master’s degree is preferred with seven to 10 years of progressively responsible administrative experience.
Forster also called for “more teeth” in admission and crowd control at Harry Harris and to stagger park employee shifts to provide more coverage. He also proposed to raise rates for non-residents as cost recovery.
“I’d like to propose to raise the fees to $8 for adults (ages 18 to 64) on a normal day; youth and seniors would be $5 on a normal day. On holiday weekends, adults would be $15 and youths and seniors would be $10 (under age 18 and over 64 years of age). Active military and disabled veterans will be offered free use. The boat ramp fee will increase from $30 to $40,” he proposed with support from his fellow commissioners.
No parking signs will be brought back to East Beach Road and the number of trailers will be limited again, staff agreed.
The increased rates and other management measures will be formalized as a resolution for approval at the next commission meeting.
Commissioners collectively acknowledged that Upper Keys parks draw more visitors from the mainland than other areas of the county.
Steve Miller, who serves the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, applauded the commission for pursuing a full-time parks director.
“It’s a great idea as long as we continue with the public meetings like we’ve been doing,” he said in reference to the advisory board. “The director would work with a given budget so that we’ll know what projects can move forward.”
Jim Boilini, who also serves on the advisory board, said he’s been calling for a director for years.
“We’ve always had a goal that we’d separate parks and rec from the public works department and not because public works hasn’t done a fantastic job,” he said.
The director would focus on presenting the county’s parks as a cohesive package, he said.
Boilini will sponsor a discussion about Rowell’s Waterfront Park and the pickleball courts at Key Largo Community Park at the next advisory board meeting.
That meeting is set for 5 p.m. Friday, April 19. To join the meeting via Zoom, visit https://mcbocc.zoom.us/j/91930918541.
A team of researchers from the University of Florida made a breakthrough in tracking the endangered Key deer’s behavior in a recent study, using cameras to identify fawns and where they are most abundant based on their unique spots.
Dr. Marcus Lashley, along with his colleague Dr. Mike Cove, broke from traditional methods of tracking wildlife and went with the rapidly-advancing camera technology method to compile data over several years, tracking where the deer raise their young.
Lashley said this was necessary since the Key deer are so small, they cannot use older tracking methods, such as radios.
Cameras were fastened to trees, bushes or rocks throughout the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and Lashley said they were able to identify at least 82 confirmed fawns based on the unique patterns of spots they have on their backs. Lashley said these spots are like a human’s fingerprints, no two are the same.
The number of fawns that Lashley speculated being seen could have been as high as 110, though he said they were not able to make a total population estimate for the species at this moment.
The Key deer is on the federal endangered species list and has lost large amounts of habitat due to human encroachment over time. They once lived from Marathon to Key West but are now confined mostly to Big Pine Key and No Name Key. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that between 700 and 800 live on these two islands.
Through the data collected, Lashley and his associates were able to map the Key deer’s migration habits. They found that fawns tend to prefer low-lying wetland areas where vegetation allows shelter from the hot sun, whereas mature deer are more common in the higher elevations of the islands.
Lashley has been studying deer for years, particularly of the white-tailed variety. He said the spots on a fawns back are seen throughout deer species and are usually used as a camouflage strategy to hide from predators. Despite Key deer not having any natural predators, the spots continue to be genetically inherited and can be used to track which deer comes from which population.
Deer mothers typically leave their young in a safe area during the day, then go out and forage for food, returning later to nourish the fawns. Lashley warns that if one comes across a fawn to not try to intervene.
“If you find a deer fawn that’s alone, don’t think it’s abandoned. Just leave it alone. The mother is out there finding nutrition,” Lashley said.
Unfortunately, the revelation that fawns prefer lower elevation areas means they could be more susceptible to rising sea levels. Lashley said he hopes his findings serve as a tool for conservationists to help in the effort to protect this unique species.
A relatively light Marathon City Council agenda opened Tuesday evening with a detailed pitch by Fishermen’s Community Hospital spokespeople for a continuation of the city’s support for the Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) to help pay for the rebuild of Fishermen’s Hospital and led to discussions on several additional local topics.
At last month’s council meeting, commissioners shared concerns regarding the city obtaining financial documents from Baptist Health South Florida before the May 1 deadline for the city to review and decide whether to vote to opt-in or opt-out of the MTSU. Those documents have now been received and reviewed.
Several Baptist Health representatives addressed the council. New chief executive officer at Mariners and Fishermen’s hospitals Drew Grossman, who replaced the hospitals’ longtime leader, Rick Freeburg, in late February, encouraged the council’s continued support and touted construction of the new facility, scheduled to open July 1.
Attorney Jay Hershoff, Board of Trustee member of both hospitals, reiterated the needs for the funding and explained the financials in greater detail. He stressed that everything in the financials complies with the Middle Keys Health Care Ordinance, which Monroe County established to ensure the availability of hospital services within the Middle Keys area.
He stressed the hardships many rural hospitals have faced in the past 10 years and that this construction marked the first new rural hospital construction in the country over that time.
Councilman Mark Senmartin reminded everyone that the $15 million in tax money, which Marathon voters approved in 2018, was needed for hospital construction, but because of the requirements of the taxing ordinance, the money had to be earmarked for indigent care. He questioned why a hospital network as successful as Baptist wouldn’t have the financial wherewithal to complete the construction without the tax, and said “the problem is not with heartstrings, it’s with purse strings.” The total cost of the hospital is projected to exceed $43 million.
The council voted 4-1 in favor of continuing to opt-in, reviewing the ordinance annually. A second hearing is also not necessary and their approval to the county will now occur before the May 1 deadline.
The council also received a Florida Keys Coastal Storm Risk Management Study update, presented by Rhonda Haag, Chief Resilience Officer for Monroe County. The study is examining sea level rise and its implications throughout the Keys. A recommended plan is expected in 2022, which should outline roadway elevation options, residential and commercial elevation and critical infrastructure suggestions. Where funding for this mitigation will come from is still largely unknown, although suggestions discussed included a 1-cent sales tax and possibly tapping in to President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Senmartin suggested more stringent mask protocol procedures within City Hal,l as well as pay raises for council members. Both subjects were voted down by the council. The council also approved the July 4 fireworks celebration, although it agreed special precautions and crowd control at Sombrero Beach will be challenging.
John Bartus brought up the need for more uniformity in lobster mini-season rules between Marathon and Key Colony Beach and agreed to work with City Manager George Garrett on ideas for alignment. He also updated the group on the state’s increasing appetite to limit “home rule” and steer more of that to Tallahassee, as was done recently regarding vacation rentals.
Finally, Ordinance 2021-07 proposing stringent irrigation restrictions ensuring water and landscape irrigation conservation is consistent throughout Marathon, was revisited after it was pulled from last month’s agenda for additional insight and details.
The council tentatively agreed to a scaled-back version of the ordinance. While less restrictive than the original, many forms of irrigation, from public parks and athletic fields to individual homeowner properties, could be affected by this legislative action. The ordinance would essentially make it unlawful for any person to irrigate their property with potable water except during approved hours, even in the absence of drought conditions.
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Ian Shaw, Sound Engineer for Conch Town Music, talks about the Most Exceptional Bill Blue Benefit Concert scheduled for Saturday night at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater.
Also on today’s show:
• Carlos Gimenez, U.S. Congressman
• Alyson Crean, Key West Public Information Officer
• Andy Newman, Tourist Development Council spokesman
• David Rice, Monroe County Mayor Pro Tem
• Ana Maria Rodriguez, State Senator
• Kerry Shelby, Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director
• Lance Martin, Marathon High School Athletic Director