The Marathon City Council’s Valentine’s Day meeting was peppered with a series of short conversations that should prove consequential for working families and nonprofits in Marathon.

The longest discussion items for the night included a current and future development, both put forward by Guillermo Torres, discussed at length and recommended for approval in split votes at the Jan. 23 Marathon Planning Commission meeting.

The first concerned the creation of divided lots for Torres’ existing La Palma development, a complex between 101st and 104th streets containing three market-rate single-family homes along with three deed-restricted affordable duplexes. The development was put under the microscope in November 2022 when the city council voted 4-1 to award six administrative relief building allocations to allow completion of the duplexes. The homes’ original building rights were revoked in the now-infamous Aug. 3 Third DCA opinion that also retracted nearly 300 other affordable allocations in Marathon.

A proposed site plan for 11 new homes and a clubhouse built by developer Guillermo Torres on the eastern oceanside edge of Vaca Cut. CONTRIBUTED

Though the administrative relief allocations don’t carry an affordable designation on their own, the council voluntarily elected to award them as deed-restricted affordable units. The divided lots, eventually approved in a unanimous vote, will now allow Torres to sell the duplexes individually for up to the maximum allowed amount for affordable homes ($482,400 in 2022).

Torres may rent the units at rates determined by affordable housing guidelines, but stated his intent to sell them to members of the Marathon community. As the units are now deeded affordable, the city will be able to review applicants to verify their qualifications prior to each sale.

The council also approved a conditional use permit and site plan for another upcoming development planned by Torres in the cleared land on Vaca Cut’s southeast edge next to San Pablo Catholic Church. As currently submitted, the site plan includes 11 residential homes and a clubhouse with a gym, meeting room, office space and possible commercial space. 

The development, which will feature a new deceleration lane – and possible acceleration lane, pending FDOT approval – after the Vaca Cut Bridge for cars approaching from the west on U.S. 1, was met with many traffic concerns at both the planning commission and council meeting before its eventual approval. As part of the approval, Torres must continue his pursuit of an acceleration lane, a “No U-Turn” sign on the southbound side of U.S. 1 as it passes 117th Street, and additional signs to warn northbound and southbound travelers about the impending turns into the development.

For more details on both approved resolutions, scan the attached QR code:


Settlements announced in Boatworks, FOLKs litigation

The council unanimously approved a settlement agreement with environmental group Friends of the Lower Keys (FOLKs). On Jan. 11, 2022, the group sued Marathon in the Southern District Court for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit challenged the city’s practice of discharging treated wastewater in injection wells 60 to 120 feet underground, a depth FOLKs said was inadequate to prevent polluted water from making its way through porous limestone and into nearshore waters. 

The settlement will prevent further legal action until February 2024 if the city agrees to a series of actions on a specific timeline. Most notably, the city is required to hire an outside firm to conduct a feasibility study of changes to Marathon’s wastewater system, including the possible development of water reuse plants. 

In a similar vein, with increasing development in Marathon placing additional burdens on the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority for clean water, the council also approved a resolution in support of FKAA’s efforts to develop a reverse osmosis plant in or near Marathon.

The council also unanimously approved a settlement agreement with the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) regarding an ongoing appeal of the Boatworks development on 39th Street. The settlement provides for the development of 22 market-rate waterfront homes and 52 affordable homes at the property, but does not allow the upland transfer of eight live-aboard units initially approved by the city. 

Though the settlement will allow completion of the development’s market-rate homes, the fate of the 52-unit building is still unclear. Market-rate building allocations were initially used to build the structure, which were eventually transferred to other sites when the development was awarded 52 affordable allocations – a portion of the 300 units eventually revoked by the August DCA opinion. 

The origin and existence of the market-rate units initially used on the building have become a bone of contention between the city and DEO, although the same DCA opinion that revoked the development’s affordable allocations acknowledged the existence of the original market-rate units. The transfer of the market-rate units to several other sites is still under appeal.

In other news…

  • Following the council’s Jan. 24 vacation rental workshop, city code director Ted Lozier reported that city staff in other departments are temporarily assisting the code department with vacation rental code compliance investigations. With Mayor Luis Gonzalez’s pledge to pursue hiring of code enforcement officers to work shifts that include nights and weekends, Lozier reported the city has received applications for the open full-time positions.

  • Public works director Carlos Solis informed the council that pay stations for parking at Sombrero Beach and Marathon’s public boat ramps should be installed this week. The department will use a database of license plates for vehicles registered in Marathon to exempt residents’ cars from parking and ramp fees, but permanent residents with vehicles registered elsewhere will need to use an online system to prove their residence and add their vehicles to the exempt list. The start date for enforcement has yet to be announced.
  • On the recommendation of City Manager George Garrett after reviewing the city’s applicable ordinances, the council unanimously voted to reinstate a program awarding $100,000 per year in grants to local nonprofits. 

The practice is a return to a previous city program discontinued after Hurricane Irma that awarded $90,000 per year raised from ad valorem taxes. With an unbudgeted refund expected by the city from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office that should be returned to Marathon’s general fund, Finance Director Jennifer Johnson said the surplus could be used to fund this year’s program. 

Eligible nonprofits will apply through an online system, and council members will be tasked with evaluating each application on a number of criteria before ranking and submitting their desired award amounts. Final awards will be calculated by averaging council members’ evaluations.

  • Finally, the council unanimously approved an ordinance to amend Marathon’s comprehensive plan and mirror language used by Monroe County as it prepares for updates to the Marathon airport. 

In an effort to increase Marathon’s viability for commercial air traffic, the airport runway will eventually be moved roughly 40 feet to the northwest to comply with current FAA regulations. As a result, about 40 feet of the vegetative buffer on the airport’s north edge bordering Aviation Boulevard will be removed to create a new Runway Object-Free Area (ROFA). 

A proposed northwest runway shift at the Marathon airport, shown in yellow, would require removal of about 40 feet of vegetation from the airport’s northern buffer along Aviation Boulevard. CONTRIBUTED

Though the airport is within Marathon’s city limits, Florida’s Airport Law of 1945 gives Monroe County regulatory authority over the site, rendering the runway move possible regardless of Marathon’s decision to change its comprehensive plan language. Adopting the proposed change would also allow a request that vegetation removed would be replanted with native species in a mitigation effort in a 3:1 ratio, not the county’s 2:1 ratio. The proposed ordinance also requires removal of all invasive exotic vegetation in the development area. 

In its initial reading at the Marathon Planning Commission’s Jan. 23 meeting, Planning Director Brian Shea confirmed that the altered comprehensive plan language would have no impact on developments outside the airport.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.