COUNTY COMMISSIONERS FACE BIG DECISION OVER PROPOSED PUBLIX IN TAVERNIER ON DEC. 13

An aerial view of property proposed for development into a Publix, liquor store and 86 workforce housing units at MM 92.5, oceanside, in Tavernier. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Monroe County commissioners convening Wednesday, Dec. 13 in Key Largo face a decision over a proposed Publix project in the historic, quaint Tavernier community. A proposed ordinance is up for a vote to allow for a building much larger than what’s currently allowed on the property at MM 92.5, oceanside. 

For the second time in recent months, developers with Blackstone Group-Tavernier 925 LLC reduced the building size in hopes of appeasing residents who’ve voiced their concerns for more than a year-and-a-half. An amended application sent to the county planning department on Nov. 21 states that the creation of a Tavernier Key Overlay District would allow for up to 49,990 square feet of nonresidential space. Developers are now seeking to construct a 49,340-square-foot supermarket and liquor store, which is down from their original proposal in April 2022 that detailed a 64,000-square-foot grocery store. Developers previously reduced the size to 58,646 square feet. 

“Permitting the overlay furthers the objectives of the code as it encourages the orderly development and construction of commercial structures or buildings that fit with the architectural design and community character of the Tavernier community,” reads an application by Smith Hawks PL and attorney Bart Smith.

Current regulations permit up to 10,000 square feet of nonresidential space per structure on the property at MM 92.5, which is owned by Singletary Concrete Products and Cemex Construction Materials Florida LLC. The sale of the land to Blackstone Group depends on approval from commissioners for an overlay and a subsequent major conditional use approval from the county planning commission. 

County commissioners were originally scheduled to consider the developers’ requests at a June meeting. A postponement came after Mayor Craig Cates and Commissioner David Rice were absent, leaving only three commissioners at the June 21 meeting in Key Largo. Commissioners were set to consider the overlay at a September meeting. The matter was pushed yet again, this time to a December meeting in Key Largo. Joe Hurwitz, developer with Blackstone Group, said they needed more time. 

Hurwitz told residents at a Sept. 7 community meeting that he’s developed 400 projects through the Midwest. Blackstone Group – Tavernier 925 LLC is also composed of Andrew, Richard and John Toppino, Louis Perez and Mary Hurwitz.

“It will be a project that has good community character and is appropriately sized for this parcel,” Hurwitz said. 

Blackstone Group and Publix Super Markets Inc. have reached a lease agreement for property, per documents sent to the county. The initial lease term is 20 years. 

Developers are also seeking to construct 86 workforce housing units on the property in collaboration with the Jacksonville-based firm Vestcor. County code requires 24 workforce housing units to go along with the project, but Hurwitz said they’re planning for 86. Uncertainties remain over how developers plan to obtain the needed ROGO (rate of growth ordinance) units for the housing. Hurwitz acknowledged the supermarket won’t be built if they can’t construct the necessary workforce housing units.

“There are a lot more ROGOs than 86 in Monroe County at various municipalities,” Hurwitz said during the September community meeting. “Our position today is that the Publix and workforce housing is tied together. That’s the commitment the Toppinos and our family have made to the county.” 

Requests need a supermajority vote from the county commission in order to pass. That’s because enough signatures were secured from neighboring property owners to force four affirmative votes instead of three. 

Structures remain on the defunct concrete property in Tavernier. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

COUNTY STAFF SAYS PROPOSAL INCONSISTENT WITH TAVERNIER LIVABLE COMMUNIKEYS PLAN 

Devin Tolpin, county planner, noted that the proposal is inconsistent with the Tavernier Liveable CommuniKeys Plan, which covers 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.”

Bart Smith, who represents the developers, told the planning commission last April that the property’s suburban commercial zoning already allows for such uses as commercial retail, offices and restaurants. 

Smith also acknowledged that concessions made by the applicant would limit the 20-acre, 600,000 square-foot property, which has potential for 152,000 square feet of nonresidential development and 216 workforce housing units

PLANNING COMMISSION RECOMMENDED DENIAL IN APRIL 

During an April 28 meeting, Monroe County Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend county commissioners deny the developers’ original proposal to create an overlay district to allow for a 64,000-square-foot supermarket and liquor store. The five-person board makes recommendations to the board of county commissioners (BOCC) as it relates to land development code changes. Roughly two-and-a-half hours of presentations, comments and rebuttals were seen inside the Murray Nelson Government Center. Commissioner members David Ritz and George Neugent voted against the motion to recommend denial. 

CONCERNS REMAIN OVER TRAFFIC

A traffic impact analysis by CBP Consulting in November 2022 stated the development would generate some 5,279 new daily vehicle trips — although further on, it says the trips generated by the development are “significantly overestimated.” Conclusions from the analysis state that U.S. 1 in Tavernier has adequate capacity to accommodate the vehicles. Local residents such as Chris Mattson think otherwise. 

Mattson lives on Garden Street next to the property proposed for development. He said it’s impossible to turn left to travel south at 4 p.m. on a weekday when hospitality and other workers head back to Homestead and school buses drop off students. A light at Burton Drive hasn’t made the traffic situation any better, he said. 

“To facilitate a Publix being in there and to get in and out is really bad,” he said.

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.