An aerial view of the property where Big Pine Road Prison was located. COLLEGE OF THE FLORIDA KEYS/Contributed

In May, College of the Florida Keys President Jonathan Gueverra updated the BOCC on his institution’s plans for the old Big Pine Road Prison. As previously promised, they include a lot of shared and community uses.

The former minimum-security prison opened in 1957 and closed in 2017, when renovations became too expensive. Since then, the county has used the property as a staging area for canal cleanups. Now, the college is exercising its “first dibs” right to surplus state lands under Chapter 253.0341 of the Florida Statutes.

“We have applied to state lands for the property,” Gueverra said. “They have given us pretty much the go-ahead. We’re in the process to apply for the lease.”

In a 2019 news report, Gueverra said, “Although this statute gives the College of the Florida Keys priority for use, it is the college’s position that the now-closed prison represents an important community asset that must be developed in conjunction with the county and in a manner that adds value to the quality of life for residents in and around Big Pine Key and the county as a whole.”

At the BOCC meeting, he mentioned several of the shared and community uses that the college is keeping in mind as it develops plans for the property.

The college will likely run its commercial drivers license training on the new property, he said, as well as law enforcement academies’ motor-vehicle training. He also has invited college faculty and scientists to determine whether it’s possible to have aquaponics on-site to act as a community garden, growing vegetables and fruits.

The U.S. Forestry service currently uses property near the old prison and has requested to be part of the future use of the state lands. Gueverra is amenable.

“There’s some boundary issues related to the property, which involves (the U.S. Forestry Service), the county and the prison,” he said, “so we’ve assured Forestry we will work with them so they can continue to have whatever piece of property they need for housing and equipment storage.”

County commissioners have also requested features to enhance the community, which Gueverra acknowledged publicly and noted are all “part of the discussion,” including athletic fields, parking for the senior center and “as much open space for temporary debris storage as possible.”

“Big Pine lost the Boys and Girls Club after Hurricane Irma, and that is still a need that is very prevalent in the lower Keys and my district,” said Commissioner Michelle Coldiron. “Is there room on the site for possible construction of a Boys and Girls site or for Boys and Girls to use part of the facilities the college will be constructing?”

“There is space for even toddlers to play,” Gueverra noted, describing an existing area that could have a “barn-type roof” added to make it usable for the Boys and Girls Club. 

The college plans to keep as much existing structure there as possible to keep costs low and to avoid having to demolish and rebuild. Additionally, Gueverra hopes to put in “a single building that can do as many things as possible.” 

The next step, according to Gueverra, is waiting for state lands to issue a survey, “so we can determine boundary lines and move forward.” He noted that if they can figure out where exact boundaries are, “deals can be made to move things around” to make sure there is space for the many different interests.  

The current survey is over 50 years old and “completely illegible,” according to Gueverra. He noted that all interested parties may have to “pitch in to pay for that survey.”

Citing the property line issues that Gueverra mentioned, Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson said, “What we need is a definitive survey. I have two surveys, and they put the property line between the state property and us in different places, but in both cases, they go through the forestry service and senior housing.”

Wilson proposed a solution to “move the property line around” and make necessary carve-outs and moves to meet the various needs of everyone involved. 

County Administrator Roman Gastesi said an updated survey was well within his spending authority and that he would work with the college to get it done, bringing expenses or updates before the commission. 

Mayor Heather Carruthers said, “I’m excited to see there’s something we can do with that parcel. For a while, it’s been useless space in the middle of a place where we need property to do something. So, I’m thrilled we have some kind of roadmap to move forward, and I want to thank the college for taking the lead here and being eligible to get the property in the first place.”

The old prison warden’s house at Big Pine Road Prison in 1957, when the prison opened. KEYSHISTORY.ORG/Contributed

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