A rendition of the Publix supermarket and workforce housing units in Tavernier at MM 92.5. The size of the supermarket and liquor store was reduced from the original proposal of 64,000 square feet to around 49,000 square feet. VESTCOR/Contributed

Monroe County commissioners cleared the way for construction of a Publix grocery and workforce housing in Tavernier, voting 4-1 to create an overlay district that both county staff and public speakers urged the group to deny during a Feb. 15 meeting.

Commissioners’ approval to establish the Tavernier Commercial Overlay District was considered a critical piece in allowing developers with Blackstone Group to construct a 47,240-square-foot supermarket and 2,100-square-foot liquor store. The project would transform a dormant concrete manufacturing site at MM 92.5 in Tavernier into the Upper Keys’ third Publix plus some 86 workforce housing units for those making 70% of their incomes in Monroe County. The developers are working with the Jacksonville-based Vestcor Companies on the design and building of 58 two-bed, two-bath, 16 three-bed, two bath and 12 one-bed, one-bath units.

An original proposal from April 2022 detailed a 64,000-square-foot grocery and liquor store. County staff not only recommend denial of the overlay due to its inconsistency with Tavernier’s guide for development, the Liveable CommuniKeys Plan, but the county’s planning commission voted 3-2 recommending county commissioners deny the request. 

At that time, the size of the grocery store was expected to be more than 60,000 square feet. Developers reduced the size of the commercial structure over the course of the months in the lead up to the Feb. 15 meeting. Developers say they could have constructed separate 10,000-square-foot commercial buildings up to 152,000 square feet on the property, per current county code. Bart Smith, attorney for the applicant, said they’re reducing the property intensity and use for the future.

Inside the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo, commissioners voicing their support acknowledged the need for 86 workforce housing units in the Upper Keys, with preference given to essential workers in the Keys who are struggling to find living space. Before construction of the store even begins, developers must receive a temporary certificate of occupancy for half the units, while the other half must be approved for foundation inspection. That stipulation is expected to come per a development agreement between the county and developers. 

Mayor Holly Raschein said the housing component of the project won’t be for Publix employees, but rather essential workers like teachers, nurses and deputies. She said she spoke to Kevin Donlan, Publix manager, and was told a majority of store employees who work in the Upper Keys drive from the mainland.

Developers are hoping to secure ROGO units for the workforce housing aspect of the project from the county’s 300 early evacuation units that they still have to accept and receive from the state. 

Commissioner Craig Cates was the lone “no” vote on the project request. His reasons echoed the many residents speaking in opposition to the project over fears of more traffic, more safety issues and a change to the Tavernier community.

“This is a good project in the wrong place,” Cates said. 

Devin Tolpin, county planning and development review manager, told commissioners that staff recommended either postponing the item so all changes to the comprehensive plan, land development code, future land use map and the proposed development agreement could be heard at one meeting to ensure consistency of all concurrently proposed amendments relative to the property. If commissioners didn’t continue the matter to a future date, Tolpin recommended denial of the proposal due to its inconsistency with the goals and objectives of the Tavernier Livable CommuiKeys Plan, which guides development in the area from Tavernier Creek to MM 97. The plan prohibits designation of new commercial land use districts beyond that contained in the master plan in order to protect the existing availability of the U.S. 1 corridor area and community center.

A county staff report on the proposal states that no amendment shall be approved “which will result in an adverse community change to the planning area in which the proposed development is located.”

Smith, on behalf of the applicant, contended the point about creating new land use districts by stating that  the property is already zoned suburban commercial. Total property area is more than 19 acres. 

“It’s already a commercial district. It is going to remain a commercial district and will stay unequivocally,” Smith said. 

Tolpin acknowledged that the proposed overlay for the development could allow for development of almost any 49,900-square-foot nonresidential structure on the property. She said the applicants continue to assert that a certain business, Publix, will maintain the property. However, Tolpin said the code and comprehensive plan won’t regulate ownership of property, and no development controls are in place to ensure a certain business retains the property in perpetuity or any length of time. 

Upper Keys resident Joan Scholz took to the podium to share a written statement by Richard Barreto, president of the Tavenier Community Association, in opposition to the overlay approval. Barreto’s statement urged commissioners to recognize the county staff’s diligent review. 

“The approval chips away at the very fabric of the (Tavernier) LCP,” Barreto’s statement read. “It will set a very clear and unfortunate precedent that will surely open up our community to similar proposals.”

Barreto said the TCA supports the construction of workforce housing and previously suggested the commission consider ways to incentivize the developers to expand the housing footprint while reducing the commercial component. 

Tavernier resident Kate DeLoach came back to the Keys following her college years. Speaking to commissioners, she recalled her renting experience in which she moved three times due to circumstances out of her control, like owners selling their homes. Finding housing is a constant struggle for professionals, and DeLoach said it’s worsened since she was a renter years ago. DeLoach supported the housing aspect of the project, which sits close to schools, the sheriff’s office and the county government building — all places needing workers for the long term. 

“All I can say is that I would have done anything to find an affordable apartment in the Upper Keys that was stable and properly managed. We made sacrifices to try and stay here because this is truly the most special place in the world,” DeLoach said. “If we can make it a little bit easy for local professionals to live here I’m in support of that.”

Property at MM 92.5 is owned by Singletary Concrete Products and Cemex Construction Materials Florida LLC. Developers with Blackstone Group, which includes the Toppino family and Midwest developer Joe Hurwitz, are gearing up to close on the property. But the sale hinged on approvals, the biggest one being the overlay district that commissioners voted in favor of on Feb. 15.

Developers must submit a development agreement to the county detailing the building of 86 workforce housing units with preferred leasing for essential workers. Other requirements that must be met by the developers include a pedestrian walkway connecting nonresidential parking lot to the right of way known as Orange Blossom Road, no outdoor lighting projected beyond property lines and a buffer for all property lines adjacent to U.S. 1. 

Smith told commissioners he was ready to submit the development agreement and a $20,000 check for the application, so long as the county commission approved the overlay district. 

Developers will also need a major conditional use approval before proceeding with the project. That matter is taken up by the county planning commission. 

Richard Toppino told the Keys Weekly the overlay was the biggest piece in terms of approvals they needed for the project. 

“I appreciate all the effort planning staff put into it. I appreciate the effort the commissioners put into it; everyone was informed and prepared on the issue,” Toppino said. “I think they (the commission) did the right thing. It will create affordable housing in the area and a first-class, top-notch business to the area.”

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy is one of the many 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 4-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, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.