KEY LARGO — Former Florida Keys state Rep. Holly Raschein has applied to fill the Upper Keys Monroe County Commission seat of Mike Forster, who died last week after battling COVID-19.
Raschein filed the application with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office of Appointments on Monday, she said. Raschein and Forster are Upper Keys Republicans and had been friends for years.
“I wish Mike Forster was still alive; that COVID had not taken him too soon as it has taken far too many,” she wrote in her application to the governor. “He was doing an outstanding job, and I will never take his place.
“However, I would like to believe that out of this tragedy I can continue his legacy by leveraging my two decades of service to the Florida Keys. I know our people, our issues, our past and our potential. If given this opportunity, I will work tirelessly to make Mike proud.”
If selected, Raschein would serve until the 2022 election. Forster’s term does not end until 2024, but because he was less than 28 months into the term when he died, the District 5 commission seat is now up for election next year.
Forster was elected in November 2020, after serving several terms on the Islamorada Village Council.
Raschein served as the legislative aide to Republican state House Rep. Ken Sorensen of Key Largo and Democratic state House Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West. Raschein then successfully ran for the position as a Republican and served until she reached her term limit in 2020.
Raschein has an understanding of inner workings of Tallahassee and relationships with state officials, lobbyists and high-ranking Republican lawmakers.
Raschein was instrumental in the passage of one of the Keys’ largest annual appropriations, the Florida Keys Stewardship Act, which brings in as much as $20 million a year for environmental and water quality protection projects.
The District 5 seat’s jurisdiction runs from Tavernier north through the Ocean Reef Club.
MARATHON — Stanley Switlik Elementary will be cutting the ribbon on its new building on Tuesday, Sept. 21, and celebrating the school’s 50th year of existence with a ceremony and the creation of a time capsule.
The event will start at 1:30 p.m. during the school day. It won’t be open to just anyone, due to coronavirus concerns, but will be for the student body, parents, teachers and guests who have “done a lot for Switlik” over the years, such as some former teachers. The entire celebration will be held outside.
The following evening, the community will be invited to an open house to walk the new campus and meet teachers in their classrooms. Principal Christine Paul said they won’t be having a big assembly indoors. The Marathon High School band will provide music in the outdoor setting.
A district spokeswoman said construction of the new building started in 2018 and that “substantial completion” was done by August 2020. Paul said the new wing had students in it in January 2020, but it still had some unfinished aspects at the time and the ribbon-cutting ceremony was delayed when the pandemic hit.
The new Switlik building houses grades 3-5, while a separate structure on the same campus, the Sue Moore Building, has grades K-2. Sue Moore also received renovations, along with the cafeteria, during construction, Paul said.
The old Switlik building built in 1971 was demolished. It took over as the elementary school from the old Sue Moore Building that was constructed in the 1940s on a nearby property, Paul said. Paul, who took over as principal in July 2020, spent 13 years at the old Switlik building as a teacher and media specialist. She said she will be nostalgic for the old building “to some extent,” adding that both her husband and children went through the building as students. But she said the new Switlik is a vast improvement.
“It was very well designed for learning and what needs to happen in a classroom setting,” Paul said. “It’s just a really bright, cheery place to be.”
She said the classrooms are large but there are smaller areas for more one-on-one work between teachers and small groups of students. She added that there’s “technology everywhere” such as easy-to-access presentation boards in the new building.
At the ribbon cutting, students and teachers will gather to create a time capsule containing notes to their future selves. Paul said the notes will be about their hopes, dreams and how they see themselves in the future. The goal is for the capsule to be opened again in 25 years.
SOUTH DADE — A controversial project to develop nearly 800 acres of agricultural land outside Miami-Dade County’s Urban Development Boundary was approved by the Miami-Dade County Commission upon first reading.
Aligned Holdings’ application to build at least 15 million square feet of warehousing and other buildings, as part of what it is calling the South Dade Logistics and Technology District, will now be reviewed for comment by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Conservationists oppose the project, which is adjacent to critical wetlands that filter and recharge drinking water pulled from the Biscayne aquifer, as its environmentally sensitive area, but many residents say there is a dire need for more jobs in south Miami-Dade.
Holding a thick stack of public comment cards, Miami-Dade County Commission Chair Jose “Pepe” Diaz said all public comment would be limited to one minute after allowing co-applicants’ attorney Geoffrey Bercow to present the manufacturing, logistics and technology project.
“It’s the first private sector to create jobs and reverse sprawl in decades,” he said.
Higher poverty and unemployment rates and longer commutes plague the South Dade area, Diaz said.
“What we have in the region today is high poverty. We have deep pockets of poverty just south of the proposed district,” he said.
Aligned Holdings’ proposed site, although outside the Urban Development Boundary, falls within “Urban Expansion Area Number 3,” which the county has prioritized for future growth once there is a demonstrated need to move the boundary.
Planning staff had previously identified 202 parcels inside the Urban Development Boundary that would be suitable for the project.
The planning advisory board and commission, however, ignored those alternatives.
The project will be built directly northeast of the Homestead Air Reserve Base near an existing FedEx depot and an Amazon fulfillment center that is now being built.
The first phase of the project proposes 2,980,000 square feet of warehousing mixed with 20,000 square feet of retail space.
The second phase proposes 2,900,000 square feet of warehousing, a 3,000-square-foot bank, a 32,000-square-foot restaurant, a 6,600-square-foot convenience store, a 38,400-square-foot retail center and a 150-room hotel.
The third phase includes another bank, restaurant, convenience store and hotel, but increases warehousing to 9,305,000 square feet and includes 78,400 square feet of retail. Up to 84 single-family residences are also proposed.
Commissioner Kionne L. McGhee said he had some concerns with the applicant’s projected job creation.
“Your numbers for some reason have changed. I read first 16,738 jobs, then I see 11,762 jobs, then I see another number at 25,000 jobs,” he said. “We need a number. I need clarity.”
The same question had been raised by planning staff as well as the Tropical Audubon Society.
“There will be 11,500 permanent direct jobs, with another indirect and induced 6,000 jobs,” Bercow said.
The industrial site is projected to generate $13 million in taxes and a Fortune 50 company, whose name could not be disclosed, will occupy the site, he said.
McGhee questioned Phase 3 development.
“As a result of the planning advisory board condition, we have amended the application that Phase 3 include infrastructure commitments the same as phases 1 and 2,” Bercow said. “There is one major property owner of Phase 3, and they have already filed an application that is consistent with the land use.”
The project was approved by the planning advisory board earlier this month with the condition that Phase 3 in the application spell out required infrastructure, such as roads, water, sewer and elevation of the property, as was done in the first two phases.
Aligned Holdings amended its application last week to address that matter.
Comments are due back to the Miami-Dade commission from the DEO in 30 days.
After comments are received and addressed, Aligned Holdings’ request will be scheduled for a second reading and final adoption hearing before the commission.
Fnal adoption will require a minimum of nine votes for the 13-member commission.
UPPER KEYS — Attorney Alexandria Suarez filed to run in 2022 for the Monroe County School District’s Upper Keys seat, currently held by Dr. Sue Woltanski, the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Office announced last Thursday.
Suarez is a prosecutor with the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office and ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for the Florida House of Representative’s District 120 seat, where she lost in the Republican primary to eventual winner Jim Mooney. The district represents the Florida Keys and a portion of south Miami-Dade County.
Suarez has lived and worked in Miami and the Homestead area for most of her life. She graduated from Florida International University with a bachelor’s degree in English and served as a public middle school teacher for nearly a decade. Suarez then joined the healthcare industry before earning her law degree from St. Thomas University School of Law in 2016.
While in law school, she continued to serve her community through assistance in immigration clinics, the Big Brother/Big Sister program, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and helping classmates as an assistant learning instructor.
Following law school, she opened the law office of Alexandria Suarez, P.A., and practices in the areas of civil and business litigation, family law, tort defense and healthcare law. Alexandria has diverse litigation experience, from handling formal hearings before the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee to litigating a variety of cases in state court.
Woltanski is currently in her first term on the school board. She is a retired pediatrician, has been an advocate for public schools and is a mother of two.
Her elder child graduated earlier this year from Coral Shores High School.
Woltanski has served as a charter school board member and on multiple committees in the Monroe County School District. She is the founder of the grass-roots effort Minimize Testing Maximize Learning and blogs about public education issues.
At the school board meeting on Sept. 7, Woltanski unsuccessfully lobbied her fellow school members on dropping the school district’s policy that allows parents to sign waivers opting out of the COVID-19 mask requirement. She supported students not wearing masks if they have medical conditions.
Woltanski has yet to file to run for a second term.
“My focus right now is on the issues facing the school district,” Woltanski said Friday. “I will make my decision in the next couple months.”
MONROE COUNTY — A man who was convicted in Arizona earlier this year on 30 counts related to creating lewd images of a child is now a fugitive and may be residing in Monroe County, according to local authorities.
Joel Fredrick Deems, 51, has a nationwide warrant out for his arrest and is facing a minimum 100-year prison sentence. Deems was convicted by a jury in Yavapai County, Arizona, in absentia, of 10 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, 10 counts of voyeurism and 10 counts of surreptitious viewing, stemming from an incident that occurred five years ago.
According to a statement from the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, Deems was living in the tiny town of Clarkdale in December 2016 and renting a room from two parents who filed a complaint with Clarkdale police after they found hidden cameras in their children’s bathroom.
Police found one camera behind a mirror and another behind some artwork that Deems had put there “for the girls.” One camera was directed at the toilet and the other toward the shower. They were connected to cables that ran into Deems’ room and then his van outside the residence. The cables hooked up to a DVR recording device and a monitor.
Two pairs of children’s underwear were also discovered in his van, and a pair of children’s pants with a hole cut in the crotch. Upon examining Deems’ laptop, police found “numerous sexually exploitative images of children less than 15 years of age,” the statement said.
Deems did not appear at the July trial. The judge issued a nationwide non-bondable warrant for his arrest after the verdict.
The last time anyone had an account of Deems’ whereabouts may have been on April 26, when he was arrested in Key West, prior to the nationwide arrest warrant being issued. He was arrested for camping on a beach after hours and giving a false ID to law enforcement. A spokesman for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said Deems had been living as a homeless man and had no idea if he was employed in the Keys at the time.
The arrest form from April shows the arrest location as 1910 S. Roosevelt Blvd. in Key West, in the area of Smathers Beach. When questioned by police, Deems initially told them he had no ID and that his name was Timothy John Shafer. He produced a Greyhound bus ticket with that name. While police were identifying him through a fingerprinting device, he told officers that his real name was Joel Deems and he had at first lied because he didn’t want his pregnant girlfriend to know his real name, according to the arrest form. Deems has two other minor charges in Monroe County from 1997 and 1998.
Deems is currently on the sheriff’s most wanted list. The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office said it could not give any further detail on an ongoing case.
“Essentially we’re letting people know that he might be here,” Monroe County Sheriff’s spokesman Adam Linhardt said.
Linhardt added that it’s not uncommon for people wanted by police to end up seeking refuge in the Keys, under the impression that it’s “Margaritaville and there’s no police.”
“We see this all the time,” he said.
Deems is a white male, approximately 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds. He has brown hair and blue eyes. The sheriff’s office asks residents to call if they have knowledge of his whereabouts.