KEY WEST IS SICK OF SEAWEED

Key West officials approved an offshore barrier to redirect seaweed that accumulates at South Beach, posing a health threat and hurting nearby businesses. CONTRIBUTED

Key West’s South Beach may once again be swimmable, without piles of seaweed, or sargassum, and the accompanying stench of its decay that poses a health hazard and hurts the adjacent resort and restaurant.

City officials on Sept. 20 approved the installation of a seaweed barrier designed to prevent the floating seagrass from accumulating in the basin at the south end of South Street between Southernmost Beach Resort and the Southernmost House.

“Once the seaweed lands on the beach, it begins decomposing and emits hydrogen sulfide, which has an unpleasant odor, and has been linked to respiratory issues, nausea and irritation of the eyes,” city documents state. “Per the Florida Department of Health, the tiny sea creatures that live in sargassum can irritate skin with direct contact. Additionally, the seaweed buildup makes the shallows near the shoreline thick with seaweed, making them unsafe and unpleasant to swim in.”

State and federal environmental agencies have approved the barrier. Several employees of the Southernmost Beach Cafe and its adjoining resort spoke in favor, citing headaches, nausea and vertigo, along with hundreds of negative online reviews and constant customer complaints about the unsightly beach and intolerable smell despite daily beach-cleaning efforts. In its lease of the city-owned beach area and restaurant building, the resort pays the city about 6% of gross restaurant revenues, which have dramatically declined since the seaweed worsened in recent years, the resort general manager said.

But not everyone was on board with the barrier. Hugh Morgan, whose family lives next door to the Southernmost House, told the commission the barrier could redirect the floating seaweed to his property, where seaweed is not currently an issue.

Before unanimously approving the barrier, the commissioners amended the plan to ensure Morgan has a clear complaint process. Officials also were assured that the barrier can be removed and detached from its anchors on the sea floor if it’s not effective.

What about the vacation rental rules?

Officials at the Sept. 20 meeting postponed any vote on new short-term rental rules until at least December, following more public workshops, discussion and collaboration among city staff. Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said the next workshops should be held in the evening, when working residents, many of whom are renters, can participate. She emphasized that the initial workshop on the topic took place Sept. 8,  a weekday, from 9 a.m. to noon, keeping many working residents — and renters — from attending and voicing their concerns.

The proposed rental restriction, as currently written, would prohibit rentals of fewer than six months at properties without a newly implemented short-term rental license. More than 100 real estate agents, mortgage brokers, property managers, attorneys and owners of vacation rental homes packed the Sept. 8 city workshop to oppose the new rule. They explained to officials why they believed the rule would do nothing to increase the city’s inventory of long-term, annual rentals for working residents and they proposed alternative remedies to the city’s housing crisis.

Paul Hayes on Sept. 8 suggested the city impose a moratorium on conversions of multi-unit dwellings to single-family homes that typically become vacation rentals. One woman, an out-of-state homeowner participating via Zoom, received no support from the audience when she suggested that Key West, particularly Old Town, is simply too expensive for working renters, who should consider moving up the Keys as far as Big Pine, where rents could be cheaper.

Resident homeowner Todd Santoro said, “I see vacation rentals as businesses operating in residential neighborhoods. I can’t have a business in my home, with customers coming and going. I question why we’re allowing these businesses.”

To encourage more annual rentals, speakers suggested extending the significant tax benefits of homestead exemptions for primary residences to landlords who rent annually to residents. Those landlords are providing a primary residence for someone, even if they’re not the ones living there, say supporters, including former city commissioner Margaret Romero, who tried more than a decade ago to launch an initiative to preserve long-term rentals. She received no support on the commission at the time. 

Still other workshop participants raised a perennial proposal: Use Tourist Development Council (TDC) money — paid by tourists to attract tourists — to fund affordable housing. State laws dictate specifically how TDC money can be spent, and affordable housing is not an allowed use. Any change would require legislative action, which has long been viewed as unlikely.

At the Sept. 20 city commission meeting, City Manager Patti McLauchlin assured lawmakers that further workshops will be held. Commissioner Sam Kaufman said he was initially hesitant to postpone the vote on the proposed rule given the city’s dire housing crisis, but he ultimately agreed to the postponement. 

Mayor Teri Johnston said the Sept. 8 workshop raised several concerns. “I’m making the assumption that we’ll need to modify this proposed ordinance before voting on it.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.