CITY OF MARATHON REACHES SETTLEMENT WITH OWNERS OF ILLEGALLY CLEARED ISLAND

The vegetation cleared from West Fanny Key must be replanted on a 6:1 ratio within the next six months. GEORGE GARRETT/Contributed.

The California couple responsible for the illicit clearing of West Fanny Key has reached an agreement with the city, according to settlement documents published by the City of Marathon Code Compliance Department.

After meeting with an ecological consultant to determine the number and type of trees that were removed from the island, David and Tammy Marabella, owners of West Fanny Key, are required to replant the entire cleared area using a minimum of 10 species from a list of 16 native plants.

As the City of Marathon requires that restoration plantings be done on a 6:1 ratio, the couple will also be required to provide an additional 120 native plants to the city of Marathon “for planting at an off-site location of the City’s choosing to enhance restoration activities on City-owned properties.”

The plantings must be completed by June 9, a deadline intended to correlate the restoration activities with Florida’s wet season. Failure to complete the required plantings will result in fines of $100 per day until all the requirements of the settlement agreement are met. The couple is also “liable for a period of one year from the date of the planting for any failure of the Restoration Plan brought about by trespassing, acts of vandalism, or any Act of God.”

“We resolved it, and we had cooperation from the owners, which we appreciate,” said Marathon City Manager George Garrett. “They never questioned us. We met one time, went on site one time with the biologist they hired, and they agreed to the settlement.”

Though the settlement does not include additional fines beyond the costs of the replanting, Garrett said he was pleased with the outcome. “They were forward about it, and they took responsibility. When you have to plant trees six to one and make sure they survive for a year, you’ve just spent a fair amount of money.”

The settlement comes nearly three months after Marathon resident Bob Williams found his daily swim around East and West Fanny Key, two small islands on the gulf side of the south end of Marathon, blocked by a barge with a backhoe clearing vegetation off the west island on Sept. 19. 

“This incident was particularly egregious because of the density of birds (on the island),” said Williams at the time of the clearing. “This is devastating to a healthy and viable rookery.”

Photos posted to Facebook quickly sparked outrage among Marathon residents, and the City of Marathon launched cooperative investigation efforts with the Florida Fish and WIldlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

While the settlement with the city should theoretically close the book on the cleared upland hammock, roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the cleared area falls under the jurisdiction of the DEP, whose case file on the island is still unresolved.

The most recent compliance inspection document signed on Dec. 13 states that the island is still in “significant non-compliance.” The report states that, “The property contains approximately 643 square feet of unauthorized impacts to forested buttonwoods wetlands. (These activities) required an Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) from the department. The department has no record of an ERP permit being issued for this property.”

The city’s settlement agreement includes an admission of responsibility by the Marabellas, but the issue of who operated the equipment used in the clearing remains unsolved. Turtle Hospital founder Richie Moretti posted a $5,000 reward for information on the operator’s identity, but this reward has yet to be claimed. Keys Weekly reached out to attorney Segundo J. Fernandez, retained by the Marabellas in the settlement proceedings, but received no reply.

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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.