At the next meeting of the Key Colony Beach Commission, elected officials will consider a development agreement for Marabella — a luxury condominium complex that would replace an aging development destroyed by Hurricane Irma. 

On March 17, KCB’s planning and zoning board approved two variances for the project, but declined to vote on a third. The planning board recommended between 22 and 24 units on the three lots owned by the condo association and a variance for height so the building can be between 42  and 45 feet high. The board declined to vote on a setback variance, saying it didn’t have enough information about the footprint of the proposed building.

“The vision for this development is in line with what I feel is appropriate for Key Colony Beach,” said Jerry Ong, a partner with Jupiter Investment Group, the developer of the project. “It will be luxury residences and completely in keeping with the city’s slogan, Gem of the Florida Keys.”

Ong said the plan for Marabella is for 27 units in a building that is three floors of residential living space over parking. He said the units will have 10-foot ceiling heights, high-end finishes and custom cabinetry. 

“There has been a lot of misinformation about the project, but when the public looks at the rendering and the presentation, it will be very easy for people to understand that the design intent is to have a project consistent with the Key Colony Beach character.”

Ong said that the development height of the project would be 45 feet, which complies with recent amendments to height limits in other Keys municipalities and Monroe County to comply with FEMA flood and sea level rise estimates. By comparison, Ong said, the height of the nearby Castillo Del Sol development is 53 feet, 8 inches (constructed before the current height limits took effect). 

At the last minute, Ong and Jupiter Investment Group pulled a development agreement for another project it is pursuing on Sadowski Causeway on either side of charter boat row. Jupiter Investment Group has planned for 16 condos on either side of the marina, which Ong said will remain intact including its existing charter boat operations. 

At one point, Jupiter Investment Group owned a portfolio of hotels including the former Holiday Inn that it sold back to Spottswood Companies and which has since been renamed Fairfield Inn and Suites at the top of Sadowski Causeway. Ong said he and his wife purchased their first Key Colony Beach property in 2000. And, beginning in 2016, they started making plans to make Key Colony Beach their fulltime home. 

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“COVID-19 has slowed us down, but by the same token, we have sold almost everything in Chicago. Our personal residence there is under contract and closes next month. That’s our last remaining tie, and then we are Keys all the way.

“I want this to be a project that people appreciate and that I can be proud of as I drive by every day,” Ong said. 

Marabella will replace Oceanfront Apartments, a 22-unit condo complex constructed in 1964. The modest condos are all privately owned. In 2017, Hurricane Irma swept the building’s foundation, revealing extensive damage. The condo association received its “substantial damage” letter in November 2018. Since then, the unit owners have explored how much it would be to rebuild, received a buyout offer that was then later essentially revoked, and is now working its way through the deal with Jupiter Investments Group. 

For any deal to go forward, there must be 100% agreement among the 22 condo owners, who all have varying investments in their units, and the lenders of five of those units that still have mortgages.

“The condo owners have been wonderful. They have been at this for four years and there has been no shouting. We are all trying,” said Mary Ann Royse, who is the treasurer of the condo association. “I think there is a perception that we have been sitting around and intentionally delaying the process so we can get ourselves into a better position. That is not the case. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Also, the condo owners and developer are counting on development rights for 27 units — the 22 that were destroyed and another 5 they say are allowable by density on an adjacent, empty parcel it added in 2000. 

Key Colony Beach Mayor Ron Sutton said the city commission won’t hear the development proposal until the meeting on April 22. He did say that many residents have emailed the commission with their thoughts.

“Half of the population will have to drive by that complex on their way home,” Sutton said, “it’s natural that they are interested. It’s been in disarray for a long time and people are interested about what is going on in their community. I would say that about half the emails were from people who approved of the project, and the other half who are concerned about the height. But with sea level rise things are changing, not just with our community.”

Marabella’s development agreement is further complicated by leadership change at Key Colony Beach City Hall — the search for a new city manager to replace Chris Moonis, who stepped down in October of 2020 (see sidebar), and the hire of Vernis and Bowling’s Dirk Smits to be the new city attorney to replace Tom Wright who retired earlier this year.

On Thursday, March 25, the Key Colony Beach Commission will meet to consider choosing a city manager from three finalists. Mayor Ron Sutton said all three are men — one from West Florida, another from the Keys and the last from Arizona. The salary is advertised at between $80,000 to $100,000. Sutton said more than 30 applied and those were whittled down to six who were interviewed virtually. The final three were interviewed in person last week in the Keys. 

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