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Islamorada development becomes campaign issue

ISLAMORADA — Islamorada is known as a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.

Now, one segment of village residents argue it’s a quaint village with a development problem and could market their own T-shirt: “Islamorada’s overdevelopment makes me drink.”

Many agree that the current election pits would-be property developers against smart-or-slower growth advocates. But, does it? Municipal planning is a profession that deals with myriad details from fence heights to setbacks to development rights.

One can hardly blame residents if their eyes glaze over as the Islamorada Village Council launches into seemingly minutiae over development permits, but it’s minutiae that enables developers to maximize the number of units on a property, even in cases when it appears such development rights to do not exist.

This year’s election has resurrected the Gimpy Gulch saga of nearly two decades ago, when development of the property at the end of Gimpy Gulch Drive, adjacent to Founders Park’s west, raised questions about the fairness of Islamorada village government.

The property’s prior owner was former Islamorada councilman Mark Gregg, a current candidate for Village Council Seat 2, who rented out units to several inhabitants. Gregg’s election opponent is Cheryl Meads.

Meads’ campaign has the funds to place color advertisements in the local newspapers, and one such ad detailed the history of village decisions that led to the metamorphosing of three building rights into eight units at the end of Gimpy Gulch; a $579,00 investment in 1998 that became a $3.5 million sale about five years later, according to Mead’s research.

Gregg received those eight units two decades ago through a quasi-legal argument that detailed how Islamorada’s then-building department director, Don Horton, wrote that Gregg had eight units on a roof repair permit. Gregg successfully argued that permit showed the village through Horton’s permit sign-off recognized the existence of eight units. Meanwhile, the property in 1998 had three legally permitted dwelling rights, according to Mead’s research.

Gregg wrote on his campaign website an explanation why he was entitled to those eight units. He cited village and local land-use regulations and ordinances that backed up the decision to recognize eight units.

“Even though nothing illegal occurred, it was the mere appearance that I had done something improper that caused me so much grief,” Gregg wrote. “I should have taken the false accusations more seriously and offered an explanation and response to the criticism. A tough lesson learned.”

Islamorada’s former director of planning, Sheryl Bower, who refused to support Gregg’s claim of eight units, was fired by then-Village Manager Charles Baldwin.

“I am positive I was terminated from my position with the village because of my unwillingness to be a player in Gregg’s scam,” Bower recently posted on a local Facebook website.

Gregg introduced himself at a village’s candidate forum last month as a former owner of a title company in the early 2000s, an attorney and teacher of business law at Florida Keys Community College, and a 17-year member of the Upper Keys Rotary. He also served as Islamorada’s vice mayor and mayor in the early 2000s. He asked voters to consider “knowledge and experience in getting us through the tough times ahead.”

Meads introduced herself as a resident who has supported Island Community Church and its former school, the Morada Way Arts District, Coral Reef Foundation and the Mariners Hospital Foundation. Elected to the Village Council in 2018, she stepped down earlier this year when other council members objected to her attending village meetings by telephone while also serving as member of the South Florida Water Management District governing board.

She is frustrated and concerned about what she describes as the village’s irresponsible development that has “eroded our quality of life,” citing traffic among the resultant problems. She says she is running to “put residents first.”

An example of “residents first” means listening to residents of the Vacation Village neighborhood near mile marker 88.5, bayside, who were concerned about commercial development affecting their pristine canal because of an approval of a minor conditional use and future land amendment change, she said. Factors included environmental concerns of detrimentally affecting hardwood hammock on the land tracts, but it was access to and commercialization of the water usage that perturbed longtime residents, she said.

Gregg, who serves on the village’s Local Planning Agency, said, “It is notable that nobody showed up to the LPA meeting on this very same application.” He described the application as flawless in its citations and legal adherence. The LPA recommended it be approved, which moved the matter to the council for its approval.

Village Planning Director Ty Harris, who says his department implements policy and does not make it, could find no reason to deny the “most passive use possible” of that space, which includes boat storage and a business office. In 1986, the county had approved a marina at the property but it never got developed. A dozen years later, Islamorada incorporated and the marina never came to fruition.

Harris loves Islamorada, but “we recognize that everything changes,” he said. He understands the need to preserve what makes Islamorada special, he said, adding, “You have to pick your battles.”

Upper Keys Democrats, above, show their choice for president during a recent ‘Beep for Biden’ event along U.S.1 in Key Largo. The Republican Party of Monroe County has set up an office in Tavernier, left, to campaign for GOP candidates. As of Sunday, 26,731 registered voters (46%) had already cast ballots for the Nov. 3 election through the early voting and vote-by-mail options, according to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections. Early voting continues daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Saturday, Oct. 31, at 530 Whitehead St., Suite 101, Key West; 10015 Overseas Highway, Marathon; 102050 Overseas Highway, Suite 137, Key Largo; Big Pine Key Community Park, 31009 Atlantis Drive; and Islamorada-Helen Wadley Branch Library, 81830 Overseas Highway. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout the county Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Publisher Tamborrino to retire; Downey to take over role

KEY WEST — Key West Citizen and Florida Keys Free Press Publisher and Editor Richard Tamborrino, a veteran newspaperman who took over the dual roles 2 1/2 years ago and guided both papers through myriad changes and challenges, will retire as of Saturday, Oct. 31.

Taking over as publisher will be long-time newspaperman Kevin Downey, who has overseen the publications’ advertising departments for the past 16 months.

Tamborrino, who previously had served as publisher of the Florida Keys Keynoter, forged many deep relationships in the community, from a business, political and government standpoint during his eight years in the Florida Keys. He has had a profound impact on culture at the newspapers by developing staff, and by making employees accountable and respected.

“I’ve dedicated 35 years and much of my adult life to the media industry because I love the excitement and the service we provide to our audience,” Tamborrino said. “Having the opportunity to work in this business has been a blessing and given me great pride.”

Tamborrino repositioned the newspapers within the community, making the staff and content more available to the community, thereby paving the way for the sale to the Adams Publishing Group two years ago.

Tamborrino prepped the newspapers for the sale in 2018 as well as for the new owners’ future success. During the past year he has conducted several actions to improve the newspapers by building better, deeper and more open relationships with the community; implementing digital strategies that grew audience faster than other Adams newspapers, and by coordinating moves out of the former Citizen and Free Press buildings.

Tamborrino conducted many organizational changes since he arrived in April 2018. He hired Downey as the new advertising director, which has had a profound impact on the sales staff and the business.

Tamborrino reshaped the newspapers’ circulation department, hiring a capable and dependable circulation manager who has been instrumental in dramatically growing the papers’ audiences.

He orchestrated the move of both The Citizen and Free Press offices to new spaces after Adams Publishing Group acquired the newspaper operations. He arranged the buildout of the new Key West Citizen office space on Flagler Avenue and reshaped the newsroom staff and the print publication schedule.

Tamborrino’s guidance and direction was key to the newspapers’ growth in digital subscriptions and revenue. The Key West Citizen’s digital success is now a model for all APG properties.

The biggest noticeable accomplishment of the year was the launching of the new platform for the newspapers’ website, keysnews.com and keysnews.com/flkeysfreepress, in September. In addition, Tamborrino launched new sales and business initiatives like the 2020 Stimulus program, a community response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a brand new News in Education strategy, with a website and complete buy-in from the Monroe County School District.

Tamborrino immersed himself in the community and its issues during his tenure as editor and publisher, participating in local events such as the Hometown! political candidate forum and serving as a board member of United Way of Collier and the Keys, the Key West Chamber of Commerce Economic Affairs Committee and the Florida Press Association Board.

“I am very proud of Richard. Richard was the key to our transition from the Cooke family to Adams,” said Mike Beatty, Adams Publishing Group regional president. “Because of his leadership and humanity toward his associates, as well as the community, he has been able to navigate the challenging waters of these unprecedented times with his team. I have enjoyed working with Richard and will miss him both personally and professionally. Richard will be a tough act to follow, but one of Richard’s strengths is the development of his people, and he has prepared Kevin Downey for his next steps in his career.”

Tamborrino’s immediate plan is to spend the next few months with his wife, Candy, and their two dogs, and more time with his three children and four grandchildren.

“I anticipate future opportunities after the new year just as enthusiastically as I viewed this business,” he said.

Downey started in the news business at age 16 when he had his own Saturday AM radio show called NOW Radio and interviewed decision makers in and around northwestern Pennsylvania.

He was a copy editor as a college student attending Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn., where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Downey next studied at American University in Washington, D.C., where he received a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs, graduating with honors, and was awarded a fellowship to the prestigious Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg where he studied media management and entrepreneurship.

Downey returned to Pennsylvania as a general manager of a small newspaper, eventually taking over as publisher of many nearby publications. During that time, Downey kept his sailing and diving interests alive with annual trips to Key West and St. Thomas when Lake Erie froze.

Downey eventually took a position in the U.S. Virgin Islands as director of a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper, where he built a highly trafficked website in the Caribbean.

He went on to work as a nationwide sales consultant before being lured to The Citizen in May 2019 and worked alongside Tamborrino for 16 months to get better acquainted with the market.

“Richard has set the table and steered The Citizen through the challenges of new ownership, a move and COVID, and most importantly with the introduction of a fully featured website with a universe of possibilities,” Downey said. “We have made significant improvements in staffing that will enhance our customer service in the merchant community.”

Downey plans to introduce new features to assist businesses while the area and state recover from the ravages of COVID-19, he said.

Downey lives in Key West’s Old Town and looks forward to continuing the boating and diving pastimes that make the Keys spectacular, he said.

Teen murder suspect released from hospital again

PLANTATION KEY — The father of a teenager charged with murdering his younger brother is advocating for his son’s well-being after the 17-year-old was released again from the hospital to the confines of an adult detention center.

In the early morning hours of May 7, Ariel Poholek awoke to his older son, Daniel Weisberger, attempting to kill him. He was able to thwart the knife attack and managed to escape. Poholek’s younger son, Pascal, 14, was already dead.

By that evening, Poholek had nearly lost Daniel as well after a daylong search for him ended abruptly when the boy walked into traffic and was struck by a truck.

“Since he’s in an adult facility, he’s had a lot of health issues. Daniel nearly died [May 7] due to a severe head injury,” Poholek told the Free Press last week. “He suffered serious bruising to his brain that caused him to be in a coma for nearly two weeks after the incident. Now, in addition to his brain trauma, he has respiratory problems. His trachea is almost completely obstructed with scar tissue from when they intubated him after the accident.”

From the hospital, Weisberger was a “direct file” into the Monroe County Detention Center where he awaits to be prosecuted as an adult.

Poholek has not been able to see his son, and as a father, he’s worried about Weisberger, regardless of what happened May 7.

Weisberger was hospitalized from Sept. 10 to Sept. 30 after he nearly passed out at the jail while walking to get blood work tests, according to Poholek.

Weisberger’s defense attorney, Jack Bridges, confirmed the teen was hospitalized.

“This is a delicate case. I just hope that everyone will withhold judgment,” Bridges said Friday. “I want to make it clear that these complaints about Daniel’s treatment at the jail are not coming from Daniel himself but from his father. I saw Daniel last night and he was fine. He understands and accepts that he is the suspect in a major case and that his life is going to be a little uncomfortable for a while.”

Poholek said he is able to talk with Weisberger through video conference.

“He almost died from blatant lack of critical medical care. He was rasping and wheezing. He sounded like Darth Vader. His breathing was so bad. While he was in the hospital, they scoped him and inflated a balloon to try to compress the blockage but there is so much scar tissue. It could come back or it may not. It’s a 50/50 thing,” Poholek said.

Weisberger has documented mental health issues, which have been compounded by a history of physical and emotional abuse, according to Poholek.

“Daniel has not had one therapy session or has talked to any mental health counselor. He’s had no neurological evaluation or follow up MRI scan. I have had no updates on his health and they’ve changed his medications without telling me, which violates [medical privacy laws] since he’s still a minor,” he said.

Weisberger is segregated from the adult inmates at the jail, according to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, whose facility currently houses four other juveniles.

“Daniel is not housed with adults and has not been. He is housed in a juvenile area with other juveniles. He is clear of sight and sound of adult inmates,” Ramsay said. “We remain concerned about him, his safety and his well-being and as normal procedure we are committed to provide him with adequate health care and counseling programs. Always remember when you hear one side of a story that there is another side as well. We care for inmates each and every day. We are a state and nationally accredited agency guided by the best practices and standards in the industry. Our jail medical provider is also nationally accredited, which says a lot about our professional corrections operation.”

Christian Minor, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, said youth who are detained in adult facilities often experience added mental duress.

“We see that adult facilities and solitary confinement presents a lot of barriers to kids’ well-being,” Minor said. “We would like to see juveniles not being direct filed into an adult system and diverted to programs that provide substantial mental health resources and continue their education to prevent them throwing away their whole lives.”

His organization is working with state representatives to push juvenile justice reform legislation. Florida is one of 12 states and Washington, D.C, that allows direct files.

“There is obviously going to be a big push for mental health counseling. This is a very bipartisan issue, but it’s also a really controversial issue,” Minor said.

“We have seen that direct file cases have gone down exponentially over the last few years. The costs are about $35,000 a year to house someone in an adult prison system. It’s a much lower number to bring them into the DOJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice] system. It depends on which judicial program they go through, but kids can be in a deep-end residential commitment program.”

The number of kids under age 18 in adult prisons from 1998 to 2013 has decreased by 75%, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Poholek says he just wants to see his son.

“I have legal rights in this case since I’m a victim but I am also his father,” he said. “I would really like to be able to see him. I thought when he was in the hospital I’d be able to but they denied me. I’ve been trying to see him during his follow up visit to the hospital but they won’t tell me when his next visit is.

“Up until the eighth grade, Daniel was a model child then he took a sharp downward spiral. He has an incredible amount of grief over his brother. This kid’s not a cold-blooded murder. He wasn’t in his right state of mind. He wasn’t conscious. He was either on something or had a psychotic break. I have overwhelming sadness but that doesn’t take away my love for him.”

Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward empathizes with Poholek’s grief. “This is a sad, horrific murder,” he said. He declined to further comment.

Floating rental fleet pares two barrel boats, pirate ship

KEY LARGO — South Shore Rentals, a Canadian company offering vacation rental houseboats, has recently pared down its fleet following a recent vessel inspection by state law enforcement officers on Lake Surprise 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 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 told the Free Press.

FWC officer Paul Hein says 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.

Happy Halloween