BUILDING BLOCKS: VILLAGE PERMITS DECREASING & 300 UNITS IN LIMBO

Building permits in the village of Islamorada are decreasing — all but 22 market rate allocations were available in 2022 with 73 applicants waiting to build on their properties.

With 11 remaining market rate building permits expected to be drawn down in 2023, the majority of village council members wanted to stay on its current distribution schedule. A round of building permits were awarded to property owners via a 4-0 vote during a Jan. 19 meeting inside Founders Park Community Center. 

Six applicants were evaluated, scored, ranked and recommended to be the next recipients of a building permit by village planning staff. Five of the applications approved for a building permit for the fourth quarter of 2022 have been on the list for an allocation since 2020. One awardee submitted an application just last November. 

Before the council’s approval of the building permits, Councilman Henry Rosenthal pitched his ongoing support to extend them through 2026, not 2023. Rosenthanal acknowledged that the village needs more time to plan once the building permits are gone and millions of dollars in lawsuits are facing the village. He also criticized the lack of discussion and definitive decisions on the matter by previous councils.

“How’s it in our best interest to pull the plug and say ‘Come on, sue us. We’re ready,’ he said. “If we reduce what’s left and make it come out to 2026, we’d be giving out one permit or possibly two a year. And that’s not going to satisfy a lot of people, but I’m getting paid to do the right thing with the people’s money.” 

Dan Gulizio, village development director, told the dais that the previous village council turned down an alternative schedule to give out allocations through 2025. However, Gulizio noted that the village has administrative relief credits, which give permits to property owners who’ve been in the system for four years and haven’t received a permit. Gulizio said there are 25 to 27 credits available.

“I think there is still time after the allocation period formally ends in June of 2023 to continue to consider relief for individuals on the current queue for an allocation,” Gulizio said. 

Village Manager Ted Yates said new people could enter the system for a building permit if it remains open through 2025. Any chances to receive administrative relief could be slim for those property owners. And Yates said there are property owners who’ve been waiting for a building permit for years — as far back as 2019. 

“Unfortunately, when they first went into the system, the cost to build now is probably 50% higher than it was three years ago,” Yates said.  

Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney asked why the village is still taking new building applications.

“All we’re doing is keeping the train going,” she said. “Can’t we put a moratorium on new buildings?” 

Gulizio said the village doesn’t want to exacerbate the problem. But he said the village has an obligation to protect the constitutional rights of property owners under language found within the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern. 

“If someone has an individual building lot, and they want to build on it and we interfere with that right, we risk litigation in connection with that either under a takings claim or a Bert Harris Claim,” Gulizio said. 

Roughly 70 property owners on the list are awaiting a building permit, but Gulizio said there are another 1,000 lots in the village that haven’t been developed that could apply for a building permit.  

Mahoney, Rosenthal, Mayor Buddy Pinder and Councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin voted in favor of the latest round of building permits. Councilman Mark Gregg abstained from the vote since his family and he are on the building permit waiting list. A special meeting on Jan. 24 to discuss the building permit allocation system was canceled last week. The meeting will be rescheduled in February after the Local Planning Agency meets on Feb. 13 at the Founders Park Community Center. 

In addition to dwindling building permits, the dais received information into the village’s case for the 300 affordable housing units. For months, the village and city of Marathon have been dealing with an Aug. 3 decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal that determined the 300 affordable housing allocations provided by the state in 2018 were illegal. With the allocations earmarked for “early evacuation,” the ruling declared that the designation violated Florida Statute requiring hurricane evacuation for permanent residents of no more than 24 hours.  

Village Attorney John Quick told council members that the Florida Supreme Court declined petitions from Islamorada and Marathon on Jan. 13 to retain those affordable housing units. Quick said the village will look into legislative solutions that other Keys municipalities are seeking. If no legislative fix is possible, Quick said the case would be remanded to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings for further proceedings. 

CROOKED PALM SUPPLEMENTAL PARKING AGREEMENT 

Last month, the village dais voted 3-2 to approve a major conditional use request for Crooked Palm Distillery at the former BB&T building on Plantation Key. During the discussion portion of the Jan. 19 meeting, Councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin asked Gulizio about a supplemental parking agreement that was provided by the applicant just before the December meeting. Gulizio said there are 19 conditions the applicant must meet for the distillery and tasting room development. One condition stipulates a parking agreement with a nearby property owner in the event there’s inadequate parking onsite. A one-year parking agreement presented to Gulizio and the village was between 168 Gardenia Street LLC, and Justin Andrews, and 90184 Rentals LLC, and Chris Sante, for parking space at 168 Gardenia Street. Gulizio said a parking agreement that was provided last minute isn’t being accepted by the planning department at this juncture. 

“It’s great that the applicant submitted something for review, but we’re not prepared to sign off on it at this point,” he said 

COMMITTEE SELECTION PROCESS COULD CHANGE

Council members currently make appointments to eight village committees that are tasked with making recommendations to the dais. But that selection process could change following a discussion brought forth by Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney. Instead of each council member placing a member of two on a select committee, she suggested the dais come to a consensus on candidates in the village who are interested in a seat and submit an application for a two-year term. Mahoney wanted committee positions to be more open to the public as opposed to council members picking people they know.

“I think we’re not looking at a lot of people in this community who want to be on some of these committees. … because they don’t know us personally or know how to go about it. We have a lot of smart people in this community who’ve asked me about being on committees but they don’t know how to go about it,” she said

Jolin, who’s served on committees, acknowledged that a councilperson should be assigned to a committee to provide more continuity. 

Councilman Mark Gregg also served on committees in the village. He said a council vote on committee appointments would provide a tighter group “where we wouldn’t have extreme positions that can lead to arguments, ineffectiveness and lack of action.” 

Village Manager Ted Yates said the village could advertise committee positions, obtain applications, allow the council to conduct interviews and collectively make a decision as a group. 

Councilman Henry Rosenthal felt the change was just another layer of government. He said he’s happy with interested residents giving him a call. 

“If it works, I (will) appoint them. It’s just that simple with me. I don’t think we need to have another committee for the committee,” he said. 

VILLAGE CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTION POLICY 

Last year, the village council doled out $120,000 in taxpayer funds to four area charitable and nonprofit organizations. Yates sought direction from the dais on whether the village should continue to hand out money to area nonprofits that provide a service to the community that the village can’t provide to residents. Council was largely supportive of the donations that go to the cause and not to an executive’s salary. A proposal could be brought back at the next council meeting.

Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.