The owners of a small, uninhabited island that served as a bird rookery have been ordered by the City of Marathon to replant all native vegetation on West Fanny Key, which was cleared with a backhoe on Sept. 19. Officials from the city and the state Department of Environmental Protection said they did not receive any applications for the clearing.
David and Tammy Marabella, of Vista, California, are listed as the owners of both the islands known as the Fanny Keys, the eastern of which has a three-story house. A Sept. 24 order from the city said the Marabellas must apply for and obtain a permit to replace and restore all native trees and vegetation on West Fanny Key within 15 days of receiving it. They must further schedule a re-inspection of the property.
A date for the owners to go before a special magistrate has been scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 21, in the event the Marabellas do not comply. If the special magistrate finds them in violation, fines of up to $500 per day that the violations continue could be imposed, according to the order. If the magistrate finds the damage to be irreversible, the owners could face up to $5,000 in fines.
The city cited a section of local code related to permitting that requires a tree removal permit be sought before native vegetation be removed.
“At a minimum, applicants for site plans shall be required to have a vegetation survey prepared to locate any regulated trees,” the code reads.
To be in compliance with this code, the property owners were supposed to have consulted with the city biologist to accommodate regulated species in their original locations and make efforts to minimize their removal.
The undeveloped island had long served as a nesting site for pelicans, cormorants and other bird species that were cherished by locals. Much of the nesting habitat in the Middle Keys has been lost to human development.
Locals were incensed when they saw and heard of the island’s destruction. Marathon resident Bob Williams was among the first to spot a barge with a backhoe that was clearing the island’s plants. He said it was “the only piece of pristine habitat that was left in this area.”
The Marabellas could face further repercussions from agencies at the state level. An investigation was launched by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the DEP. Multiple calls to the Marabellas from the Free Press went unanswered. A representative from the DEP said the agency had been in touch with the Marabellas and had asked permission to access West Fanny Key, but they initially denied access.
The DEP later said it had inspected the site jointly with the FWC and was in the process of finalizing a compliance inspection report. A spokesman said the DEP was drafting a warning letter which will require the owners to meet with the agency to review “possible violations of Section 403, Florida Statute and provide the department the necessary facts to complete is regulatory review.”
“If it is determined that unauthorized mangrove alteration, mechanical clearing in wetlands and/or dredging activities have occurred, DEP will pursue enforcement against all responsible parties,” another spokesperson said in a statement. “Along with the possibility of fines and penalties, which are one enforcement tool, enforcement can also result in mitigation, restoration and/or remediation actions through a compliance assistance offer, consent order and other enforcement mechanism.