Residents living near a proposed supermarket and workforce housing project in Tavernier fear more traffic and changes would come to their quiet and quaint community.
Developers seeking to purchase and transform property from a defunct concrete plant to a Publix supermarket and liquor store heard overwhelming questions and concerns from the community during a meeting they hosted inside Key Largo’s Murray Nelson Government Center on Sept. 7.
An application submitted by the developers to Monroe County in 2022 requested a change to its land development regulations in order to create a Tavernier Key Overlay District. If approved by Monroe County commissioners, developers could build a nonresidential structure up to 70,000 square feet. Current regulations permit up to 10,000 square feet of nonresidential space per structure on the property at MM 92.5.
An original proposal by developers showed a 64,000-square-foot Publix supermarket and liquor store. The building size was reduced to 58,464-square feet following concerns from residents and county staff.
County commissioners were supposed to consider the overlay 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. Developers said they needed more time.
“We have a lot to do,” said developer Joe Hurwitz, who’s a member of the Blackstone Group – Tavernier 925 LLC with Andrew, Richard and John Toppino, Louis Perez and Mary Hurwitz. Hurwitz said negotiations with Publix are being finalized to reflect the new building size. Monroe County code requires 24 workforce housing units to go along with the project, but Hurwitz said they’re planning for 86. The developers are partnering with the Jacksonville-based firm Vestcor on the workforce housing side of the project.
There’s uncertainty, however, 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. “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.”
Richard Toppino said they’re in talks with Islamorada to potentially obtain ROGOs. A few members of the dais are on board in recent talks, according to Toppino.
“I’m not positive why they would not since it would benefit them as the affordable housing is right here,” Toppino said. “I would think it would be a smart move if they’re not building in Islamorada.”
An Islamorada council meeting that same night on Sept. 7 inside the Founders Park Community Center briefly discussed the Publix project and word that the developers are seeking ROGOs from the village. John Quick, attorney for the village, told the council he spoke with Monroe County’s attorney and was told the county has no way to receive ROGOs from the village through an interlocal agreement.
“It’s my understanding talking to the county attorney that they don’t have a mechanism as it stands to receive them,” Quick said, adding that the village doesn’t have any ROGOs to give for the project.
Traffic remains one of the larger concerns surrounding the supermarket project. In May, the developers submitted a traffic study to county officials. Hurwitz said the study used cell phone tracking technology to show where Publix shoppers in the Keys are coming from.
“I can’t tell you if it (the traffic study) is approved or not, but I can tell you categorically that this will reduce the number of trips in the worst segments,” Hurwitz said.
Mimi Hurwitz said they’re responding to any questions the county has on the submitted traffic study.
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.
“As a resident looking at the traffic and looking at trying to get around, we’re not even in season. This is September,” he said. “To facilitate a Publix being in there and to get in and out is really bad.”
Joe Hurwitz said the project initially examined the idea of a Publix, a “junior anchor” store, like a clothing shop, and two lots. They backed off when they realized a Midwest-style, shopping center project would be too intense for the Keys.
“We will build a first-class project. At the end of the day, it will be a project that has good community character and is appropriately sized for this parcel,” Hurwitz said.
Islamorada resident Tina Cash took to the podium and pleaded with the developers to create a park with green space, and not a supermarket. Her remarks were met with applause from the attending public.
“This is our chance to make a difference for the environment,” she said.