With a contract to build a new city hall off the table for the moment, the feasibility of reopening portions of Key Colony Beach’s existing hall building is once again at the center of the city commission’s debates. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Though the last few months have seen a major changing of the guard in Key Colony Beach, the island’s City Hall debate doesn’t appear to be stepping out of the spotlight any time soon.

The city last month settled its civil suit with resident Laurie Swanson by agreeing to rescind its July 2023 vote to award construction of a new city hall building to Hands On Builders LLC. Since then, the building’s history of inspections, engineering reports and official determinations in regard to its status as an “unsafe” or “condemned” structure have been even more under the microscope, as put on display during KCB’s Jan. 17 workshop and Jan. 18 city commission meeting.

Upon assuming his new post in December, KCB Mayor Joey Raspe immediately stated his intent to re-examine the existing building with Building Official Lenny Leggett in order to determine the feasibility of opening at least the building’s Marble Hall portion until the commission could arrive at a more comprehensive plan moving forward.

However, prior determinations from former Building Official Ed Borysiewicz, along with a legal memo from City Attorney Dirk Smits and more recent communication between Leggett and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), have raised questions of legality and risk in reopening the shuttered hall.

A memo from Smits sent to the commission on Dec. 8 offered an opinion that all existing areas in the hall, including the Marble Hall portion, must legally be considered a single building, with one portion ineligible to reopen while another is deemed unsafe. Leggett supported this determination at Wednesday’s workshop, saying the single building’s bounds were defined by its exterior walls.

A 2018 opinion from Borysiewicz called the main portion of the City Hall building “no longer safe for occupancy,” a determination that Smits said “cannot be vacated or overturned” in the absence of measures to make the building “safe in compliance with the Florida Building Code and Key Colony Beach Code of Ordinances.”

However, addressing the commission in the Jan. 17 workshop, Borysiewicz challenged the narrative that has come from his 2018 opinion.

“I believe the city hall building was not substantially damaged due to Hurricane Irma, period,” Borysiewicz said to open his comments. He spoke in favor of installing pin piles to stabilize the damaged floor of the administrative area of the existing hall, and added that he “definitely separated (the hall) into different parts” when making the 2018 determination. He stated that there was “no problem, in my opinion, with the (pin piled) Marble Hall floor.”

In an email sent to Smits and Raspe on Jan. 8, Leggett outlined a conversation with DBPR investigator specialist Mark Terrill regarding risks to Leggett’s building official licensure should the building reopen prior to a structural evaluation and repairs. 

“As (Terrill) advised, under no circumstances is the building to be entered at this time, or I will be subject to formal investigation myself and required to report such action,” Leggett wrote. “It is my formal recommendation that the facility again be evaluated by a licensed structural engineer to determine the structural integrity of the facility in its entirety.”

In a subsequent email response sent to Foster and Smits on Jan. 16, Leggett added that Borysiewicz’s 2018 letter effectively revoked the building’s certificate of occupancy (C.O.) immediately, meaning that re-entry to the building would require re-issuance of a C.O. following permitted repairs.

“I am willing to aid in this effort (to reopen the hall), but in accordance with (the) Florida Building Code … and in accordance with our own codes of ordinances,” Leggett wrote.

Foster challenged Leggett’s assumptions Thursday, saying he was “struggling with condemning a building that’s never been condemned based on the word ‘unsafe.’”

“If (an unsafe area) was maintained in an order to restrict movement until such time as it was made safe … I really struggle with an area condemning an entire building when the word ‘condemned’ has never been used,” Foster said.

“I think that we get a professional structural engineer in there to take a look and say it’s either safe or it’s not safe,” said Raspe. “We all know that if he says it’s not safe, we’ll live with that. We need to start moving on.”

Citing unrest with the conflicting opinions provided in multiple inspection and engineering reports for the building since Hurricane Irma, Leggett asked the commission to consider two simultaneous inspections from separate engineers in an effort to arrive at a unanimous, updated determination for the building. City staff also confirmed that KCB does not have an active liability insurance policy on the building, news that the commission said must be immediately remedied.

Raspe acknowledged difficulties in scheduling engineers for an inspection in the midst of ongoing controversy surrounding the building. These difficulties were confirmed in an email from engineer Rainer Arceo Feria of RAF Structural Engineering on Jan. 7, asking for further clarification on the purpose of the inspection and adding that, “It appears the discussions regarding the City Hall building have lasted for many years, including insurance claims and investigations as well as many engineering reports.”

Raspe said the engineer he initially contacted “didn’t want the controversy of (the hall). … The pages were 300 pages deep, plus the electronic files. He thought it would be overwhelming for him to sift through.”

At the Jan. 17 workshop, Raspe confirmed that he was eventually able to schedule an engineer to perform the inspection, likely during the following week. He acknowledged that reopening part of the building would be a “short-term, interim fix” while the commission continued to debate a long-term plan.

In other news:

  • Originally promoted at KCB’s December commission meeting, new sergeant Jamie Buxton received her official promotion and recognition with the Key Colony Beach Police Department. As confirmed by Police Chief Kris DiGiovanni, Buxton will serve as KCB’s first-ever female sergeant.
  • The commission unanimously approved a $30,172 payout for former City Administrator Dave Turner in accordance with his contract, totaling Turner’s remaining vacation and sick pay in addition to eight weeks of severance pay.
  • Raspe will continue to act as KCB’s city administrator while the commission determines desired qualifications and duties for future candidates. As discussed by the commission, this determination likely would take the form of a special call meeting attached to one of the city’s future workshops.
  • A contract extension for the city’s legal services with Vernis & Bowling of the Florida Keys, P.A., was unanimously approved. Under the new contract, quarterly compensation should not exceed $30,000 without city commission authorization. Separate budgets for additional fees associated with litigation stemming from city-related business – for instance, litigation for code enforcement cases – will be discussed and approved by the commission on a case-by-case basis. With the approval came a request for more detailed itemization of costs in order to allow the city to track cumulative sums for legal work on specific projects.
  • The commission informally agreed to add a second citizens’ comment period to the end of future commission meetings in order to allow residents to offer their input on items heard during the meeting.
Alex Rickert
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.