CONTRACTORS SEEK ANSWERS AS MARATHON PERMITS AGREEMENT NEARS FINISH LINE

Though major developments will still require review, minor construction projects could see permitting wait times drop once again with the adoption of a new Memorandum of Understanding. CONTRIBUTED.

Contractors were notably present in Marathon City Hall for the city council’s May 10 meeting, eager for an update on the progress made by the city in its negotiations with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to adopt a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and shorten wait times for permits. The response they heard was largely the same as the month before: wait for the state.

The new memorandum, which dictates the development orders (permits) sent to DEO for review, became a necessity following the state’s revocation of the previous MOU, in place since 2005. On Feb. 25, the DEO issued a Notice of Violation concerning a development at the end of 39th Street in Marathon, commonly known as the Boatworks project. 

Though the Boatworks project had obtained a conditional use permit for the site, the state appealed a revision to the development agreement that allowed previous live-aboard units to become upland residential units when determining the number of market rate units allowed.

DEO then contended that the city’s decision to issue building permits for four units in the project during the pending appeal violated the appeals process. 

At its March 8 meeting, the city council adopted a resolution to replace the old MOU. The modified MOU was sent to DEO for review and approval, but instead of signing the version drafted by the city, the state sent back a further revised version more than four weeks later on April 8. 

Four days later, the city council unanimously adopted the state’s draft of the MOU at its April 12 meeting and sent it back to the state for final approval and enactment. 

Intending to streamline the permitting process between the city and state, Marathon planning director Brian Shea also suggested improvements to the language in the new MOU draft specifying the types of permits that should be rendered to the state. 

One such example: under the state’s April draft of the MOU, all subsequent permits for properties receiving a conditional use permit would require review by the state, including typical repairs to electrical, plumbing and air conditioning systems throughout the life of the building. The city’s hope was that future clarifications of the day-to-day workings of the MOU could be addressed in subsequent additions or revisions to the approved document, but that the state’s draft unanimously approved by the city council in April would take effect quickly.

DEO declined to sign the version of the MOU approved by the council, opting instead to send back a revised copy on May 5 with further provisions specifying the types of permits that should be sent to the state department.

“What you have before you is something that I believe should be signed this week by DEO, regardless of the length of time it took us to get to this point,” said city manager George Garrett on Tuesday night, while noting that city staff still believes the new MOU needs eventual revision to work effectively for both parties.

“The state has committed to come down here and work with us on this subject, and we are committed to going up there to work with them in the near future,” he added.

Placing approval of the MOU’s most recent state-authored draft on its consent agenda, the city council unanimously voted to approve the memorandum and send it to the state once more for final approval.

If approved, the state would largely seek to review permits for new buildings or expansion of the footprint of an existing structure; transfers of ROGO exemptions, building rights and development rights; variances from the city’s land development code; construction of new marinas; accessory use permits including pools and tiki huts; marina construction; and dredging, among other listed development orders.

According to a table attached to the new draft, less significant permits, including those for electrical and plumbing work, fire alarms and suppression systems, fencing, irrigation, sewer connections, solar work, roofing, and window and door replacement, among others, would no longer make their way to the state. According to the same table, renovation or remodeling permits would still require review.

Until the agreement is signed, however, the continued extended wait times are now causing financial strains on contractors and, in some cases, an inability to respond to safety concerns.

Derrick Lazzara and Charlie Brown are the president and vice president, respectively, of the Florida Keys Contractors’ Association. According to the pair, what initially began as a “mild annoyance” is now “ridiculous.”

“It’s starting to affect employees, because jobs are supposed to be happening,” said Lazzara. 

Brown added that while he is not yet aware of any contractors who have laid off employees due to the sluggish permitting process, it’s “a possibility that’s going to get here quick.”

Though new builds are also affected, Lazzara and Brown specifically cited multiple contractors’ concerns with extended timelines for routine service repairs and minor projects within existing structures, adding compliments for a permitting process that was moving “much smoother” under building official Noe Martinez before the MOU was revoked.

“If I turned in a repair permit and marked it ‘emergency,’ I usually had it back between 24 and 48 hours, sometimes even the same day,” said Brown.

As of now, time-sensitive repairs from air conditioning units to unsafe decks and electrical meters could be staring down a wait period of more than two months.

Under the previous MOU, permits issued by the city but not sent to the state would have a 30-day appeal period before the project could receive a final inspection. However, complications with already-issued permits were rare, and most contractors would commence work immediately upon issuance. 

“There’s always a little something saying you have 30 days, but most people down here don’t even know that exists,” said Brown.

New drafts of the MOU, however, specifically state that “no development order issued by the City shall take effect or be acted upon by any developer until the city’s applicable appeal period has expired.” For permits sent to the state, the same rule applies until the state’s 45-day review period expires, the state waives its right to appeal, or any ongoing appeal has concluded.

Combined with extended review periods, the inability to move forward with permitted projects  for up to 75 days has tempted several companies to forgo the process entirely.

“There’s a lot of people thinking the same thing,” one contractor who declined to be named told Keys Weekly. “Why bother putting in for a permit just so I go out of business waiting?”

Lazzara and Brown credited Garrett for his willingness to keep in contact throughout the MOU’s revisions. However, with nearly three months since the original agreement was revoked, contractors are looking for more than an explanation of the city’s constant dialogue with DEO. And even with questions about the circumstances that led to the Notice of Violation and subsequent termination of the MOU, their focus is on moving forward.

“It’s not a matter of being frustrated with the city or how we got here,” said Brown. “It’s a frustration from not moving forward. … We’re still stuck in this purgatory.”

“We’re starting to question, what’s the problem?” said Lazzara. “Why is this dragging on so long? … Now you are actually messing with people’s livelihood and businesses. Employees are at risk, everything. It’s just not worth it.”

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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.