an island in the middle of the ocean
A rendering shows a resort on Tea Table Key in Islamorada. The property, which currently has a vacation rental home at more than $4,000 a night, is owned by Integra Investments and principal Victor Ballestas. CONTRIBUTED

A five-bedroom, four-bathroom vacation rental home sits on a 15-acre private island in Islamorada. Roughly 2,000 feet of private driveway leads to Tea Table Key, an exclusive island where vacationers can break away from the hustle and bustle for a bit of relaxation and views of the Atlantic Ocean — all at a weekly price of $25,000 to $35,000, depending on the time of year. 

The property sat on the market for several years until 2021, when Miami-based Integra Investments and principal Victor Ballestas purchased the island for $8 million. With the transaction, Ballestas saw an opportunity to potentially transform the property into an eco-friendly, villa-style resort. The plan, however, has several members of Islamorada’s Local Planning Agency (LPA) concerned about the effects a development of that scale could have on the surrounding waters. 

Applications to the village seek changes to the future land use map (FLUM) from native residential to tourist commercial for Tea Table Key. There’s also a request for a zoning change from residential conservation to mixed. Both requests, as well as a development agreement, need council approval in order for Ballestas to construct a 24-unit resort on the island. Ballestas was originally seeking to build 30 units on the resort, but public comments about his plans during a LPA meeting last September nixed the idea. 

“It was clear to us after the last meeting that the original plan we presented wasn’t as well thought out as we thought it was,” Ballestas told LPA members. “We went back to the drawing board and tried to address the comments so it’s less impactful.”

Proposals would allow develop to purse
transfer of motel units

Per a staff analysis, the proposed changes to the FLUM and zoning map would allow the owner to pursue transferring 24 motel units from Sunset Inn onto Tea Table Key. Located at 82200 Overseas Highway, Ballestas purchased the property from then-owner Deb Gillis in 2018 for $3.7 million. 

If the transfer is successful, Ballestas will turn the 24 motel units at Sunset Inn into workforce housing units. A development agreement prepared by Ballestas’ attorney Bart Smith states Ballestas is seeking to purchase the Casa Morada property, located at 136 Madeira Road. The property was once a part of the Sunset Inn parcel. In unifying the two properties, the development agreement states the units can be transferred from one waterfront property to another. 

“Sunset Inn and Casa Morada were previously identified as a single property, and the Village has confirmed that the Properties can be unified and will be a single waterfront property for future development review purposes,” a development agreement reads. 

Staff recommends approval,

but LPA has issues

Village planning staff are recommending Islamorada council members approve the request, which is expected to be heard at a future meeting. A staff analysis states the proposed map amendment would be consistent with the historical trend of a mixed-use development pattern within the village. The properties along Overseas Highway contain mixed uses, including commercial, recreation and residential uses.

The LPA majority, however, recommends the council say “no” to the requests. 

On May 13, Ballestas’ project came back to the LPA, the seven-person group charged with recommending proposed changes to the village’s comprehensive plan, zoning map and land development regulations. Following hours of conversations and questions, the LPA voted 4-3 to recommend the council members deny Ballestas’

LPA chairwoman Gillis and fellow members Cheryl Culberson, Susan Raffanello and Patrick Foley voted to recommend the council deny the requests. Culberson was quick to provide her response to the proposal. 

“Let me start at no. Not only that, hell no,” she said. 

Culberson’s response was in relation to a premiere bonefish flat not far from the island where the resort would sit. 

“Nothing makes life worse for a bonefish flat than boat traffic,” Culberson said. “You’re already looking at destroying a place that has 100 bonefish a day that are valued in the county at $150,000 each annually.”

Ballestas told the LPA his resort would be eco-friendly with plans to reuse rainwater for irrigation and reduce vehicles driving onto Tea Table Key. He decided to alter plans and move guest check-in to Sunset Inn — the Islamorada hotel he bought from Gillis in 2018 — to address concerns of traffic on a narrow road leading to the island. Following check-in, guests would be transported to the island via boat or car. Guest vehicles would remain at the Sunset Inn. 

Village resident Sue Miller told the LPA she didn’t believe the road to the island would support fire trucks in times of an emergency.   

“It’s unbelievable the village would allow such a project in an environmentally-sensitive area,” Miller said. 

Bart Smith, attorney representing Ballestas, told the LPA the road is wide enough to accommodate fire trucks. 

“We already had preliminary meetings with all the staff, including fire, as to the sufficiency of the entrance way. It’s wide enough. We’re not going to impact mangroves. A fire truck can drive out there just fine.”

No marina would be constructed, nor would there be any dredging. The existing dock on the island would remain for licensed charter guides to pick up their guests, Ballestas said. 

If his requests proceed, Ballestas is intending to pledge $250,000 to support improvements to the Fills, the three islands connecting Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. The area was once a day-tripper destination and the subject of much public outrage with cars packing each island. Trash covered the Fills and flowed out of Dumpsters. Eventually, the village council decided to limit parking on Fills with village staff monitoring activity. 

LPA member Tony Hammon voted to recommend the changes receive council approval. He was joined by Lorie Lalonde and James Rhyne. Before his vote, Hammon shared concerns over the property’s historic relevance.

“There may or may not be human remains on there. I think you’re going to spend a ton of time or money … and someone from (the University of) Florida or Florida State will come back with a historic document and say ‘No, this is a sacred site.’ And then you’re dead in the water at that point,” he said. 

A transformational project
& workforce housing

Several business owners expressed their support for Ballestas’ vision for a resort and his intent to bring 24 workforce housing units to what’s now Sunset Inn, located in the heart of Islamorada.

“The project that Victor’s doing will be a great benefit to the community,” said Armando Gonzalez, owner of Blue Marlin Jewelry. “The workforce housing … my employees can’t afford housing. I think it’s a great thing that he’s doing it.

LPA member Patrick Foley said the affordable housing is generally a ploy to get projects through the approval process. 

“The only way we should change any zoning or categories of properties is if there’s an extraordinary rationale, like we cheated them 30 to 40 years ago out of this position. Just because we’re going to bring a world-class resort to this place is not an extraordinary rationale to change the setting here,” Foley said. 

Ballestas replied there was no extraordinary rationale for the FLUM and zoning changes. But he followed by stating he bought the island with the dream of opening it to others through a resort. 

“The idea of a resort was me coming up with something everyone would love and would be a great addition to the village, period,” he said. “If it doesn’t get approved by the council, then we will probably tear down the house, bring in fill and build a bigger house. At that point, nobody gets to enjoy the island. My dream of a resort is gone, but it is what it is.”

Pierre-Marc Bellion, owner of Cafe Moka, alluded to the transformation of property now known as the Moorings in Islamorada. Bellion said it was then-owner Hubert Baudoin’s vision in the 1990s to turn it from a dump to what’s now Pierre’s and Morada Bay. 

“He (Baudoin) had a vision just like Victor had a vision, and he (Baudoin) wanted to do something extraordinary that was on par with what people liked,” he said. “I think we’re all proud of the Moorings.” 

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy is one of the many who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures in Western New York. 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 5-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club. When he's not working, he's busy chasing his son, Lucas, around the house and enjoying time with family.