ISLAMORADA COUNCIL CORRECTS A ‘REZONING WRONG’ FOR ISLAND COMMUNITY CHURCH PROPERTY

a white building sitting on the side of a road
Island Community Church located at 83250 Overseas Highway in Islamorada. ICC requested the property’s zoning be reverted back to highway commercial. It’s currently zoned public/semi public services. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Properties in Islamorada underwent zoning changes not long after the village’s incorporation in late 1997. For some property owners, the rezoning in 2001 resulted in a change of use for their lands.

On top of that, property owners apparently weren’t notified of the alteration, as some residents noted during an April 11 meeting at Founders Park Community Center. Village council members began to correct what Ty Harris, former planning director, called the “original sin of the village.” Harris took to the podium representing Island Community Church’s request to revert the property at 83250 Overseas Highway back to a highway commercial zoning to repurpose the building for commercial use. Property once deemed commercial by Monroe County, before Islamorada’s incorporation, is currently zoned public/semi-public services. 

Council members voted 4-0 on the requested zoning change. Elizabeth Jolin recused herself. 

Tony Hammon, retired ICC pastor, asked the council to return the property’s zoning back to when it was known as Cinemorada Theater. ICC purchased the cinema in 1974 from R.F. Parmelee, a Kansas City businessman who lived on Lower Matecumbe Key during the winter. Hammon recalled his years as a teenager climbing to change the marquee. 

“I got 50 cents an hour and saw movies I wanted to see,” Hammon said. “Ironically, the last movie to play at the Cinemorada after we handed the check to Mr. Parmelee was ‘The Godfather.’ I climbed up on the marquee and changed the sign one more time to ‘God the Father.’

The building served as the home to the church and Island Christian School, which had more than 150 students by the end of the first school year. ICC eventually acquired property just north of the church for the school, which educated students for decades until its closure in 2019. With needs for more space due to an increasing congregation, the church is moving to the former ICS property.

In 1989, Hammon became senior pastor. He told the council there was no notification, signs or letter informing him of the zoning change. 

“I don’t throw anything away. I’ve looked at every piece of paper that I have and every document I have. … Nothing is in writing that I can find,” Hammon said. 

Following Islamorada’s incorporation, the planning department began traveling a stretch of 18 miles to examine properties and compare county zoning with what future zoning could be in the village. During that process, Harris said, properties on U.S. 1 with a commercial designation were proposed to be down-zoned to residential, conservation and public service.

“I haven’t found one instance where somebody’s zoning changed in a way that put value in their pocket,” Harris said. “All the village did was take millions of dollars from residents’ pockets.”

Councilman Mark Gregg voted in favor of the ordinance to change the zoning for ICC at the April 11 meeting. He served on the council that voted 4-1 to change various zoning designations in 2001. Gregg, the lone “no” vote that year, said the zoning was changed in a “sneaky way.”

“It was unfair then and it’s unfair now,” Gregg said. “I feel some poetic justice to sit here tonight and some pride to be able to fix that.”

Why are applications from property owners coming before the village 20 years later? Harris attributed that to the state Legislature mandating Florida municipalities insert language in their comprehensive plans which protect private property rights. He also mentioned the Shands v. City of Marathon court case last summer, which stoked the idea that even if zoning changed years ago, property owners have the ability to get relief through the courts. 

“It’s the genesis for property owners saying the time is now to recoup my zoning and get my value back. The church is the first one, but it won’t be the last,” Harris said.

Council members also considered and approved a request by HVS82 Investments LLC to change the current zoning from native residential to highway commercial on property located at 88755 Old Highway on Plantation Key. The property, owned by Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney, is developed with an existing greenhouse. Mahoney, who bought the property from her father in 1990, had previous approval from Monroe County, prior to village incorporation, to construct the greenhouse to support her flower shop. 

Upon village incorporation, her property was rezoned to native residential. Mahoney said she was never notified of the rezoning. She found out in 2017 when the late Mike Forster informed her of the zoning change. She began to work with Harris, the former planning director; Seth Lawless, village manager at the time; and Roget Bryan, former village attorney, to correct the issue. Mahoney said she started the process all over following the departures of Lawless and Harris, the COVID pandemic and the unfortunate passing of Forster in 2021. 

“I didn’t just start on this when I joined the council,” Mahoney said. “This is unfair, and I’m not asking for something I don’t think anyone could say I don’t deserve.”

In a move to prevent any major development, Gregg requested the council add language stating Mahoney’s property can’t be combined with neighboring properties or adjust boundary lines that would change the size or configuration. Fellow council members agreed with Gregg’s suggestion.

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.