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.”