A plan for the parcel within the Aquarium Encounters property, which would include a 25,000-square-foot warehouse/educational facility, is opposed by neighbors. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

During a five-hour City of Marathon meeting that saw council members placing bets about when it was going to end, a contentious issue took center stage: the final approval of a conditional use permit for the expansion of Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters. Residents of the neighboring condo complex, Seawatch, who oppose the expansion, anxiously watched the proceedings along with staff from Aquarium Encounters. Despite the Seawatch Condos’ lawyer seeking to prevent the development, Animal Encounters successfully retained its right to expand.

Meanwhile, other development flew through the approvals process during the meeting with nary a blink: Affordable housing, a 21-unit project and a luxe resort.

The Marathon Planning Commission had recommended a conditional use permit for the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters to create a facility to be built on the north end of the property. The aquarium plans to build a two-story 15,200-square foot building on the land it owns between its current developed attraction and the condos, all of it fronting Vaca Cut. Within that space, Aquarium Encounters plans to have educational programming, manatee rehabilitation and coral restoration.

At this city council meeting, the organization was seeking final approval on the conditional use permit from the city council.

However, neighboring Seawatch Condos threw in a legal roadblock to the approval in the form of lawyer Nicholas Mulick, who sought to overturn Aquarium Encounters’ variance for wetland setback reduction that had already been approved by the planning commission.

“This is a train wreck waiting to happen,” said Mulick. “It will destroy that area.”

But the city council unanimously denied the appeal by Mulick, agreeing that the variance had already met the approval of the planning commission.

Next, the meeting focused on the final approval of the conditional use permit for the Aquarium Encounters’ expansion, which is opposed not only by Seawatch Condos but also by neighboring homeowner and attorney Bart Valdes. The attorney spoke about traffic patterns, truck turnarounds and overflow parking.

“The applicant himself is saying there’s going to be industrial use on this property,” he said. “When a truck unloads, you can’t even get by on that road.”

Meanwhile, Sandra Walters of SWC, an ecological and environmental consulting firm, spoke against the expansion.

“The location of a building twice the size of the building we are sitting in now at the proposed site is not good,” she said. “There are residents in Seawatch Condo who are older. Imagine if someone has had a heart attack and an ambulance is coming and a truck is in the way. This warehouse doesn’t belong here.”

Locals such as Daniel Samess of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, Kelly Grinter of the Marathon Wild Bird Center and Charlotte Quinn of Crane Point Museum & Nature Center all spoke of their support for the expansion of Aquarium Encounters.

“That’s why people stop in Marathon,” said Quinn. “That’s what puts heads in beds.”

In the end, the city council members unanimously approved Aquarium Encounters’ conditional use permit, allowing the expansion of the warehouse/educational facility.

With much less controversy, the council also approved the next steps for development for the following projects: about 300 affordable housing units that were originally awarded by Governor Rick Scott after Irma; 21 new units on Coco Plum on Pescayo Avenue; and Valhalla Island Resort on Crawl Key.

Council Member John Bartus told Keys Weekly that he was relieved the affordable housing building permit allocations were approved.

“We were fighting a court battle until just a couple months ago,” he explained. “We had challenges from people who didn’t want to see these units down here — strident no-growthers. It was such a nice thing to be able to do. To say, ‘Here, build them.’”

Bartus pointed out that the one caveat with these units is that they are designated as “early evacuation” in the case of a hurricane.

“Residents would have to evacuate early, with the tourists,” he said.

The owner of the 21-unit Pescayo Avenue property clapped when his conditional use permit was approved. The project consists of three duplexes and 15 market rate homes for a total of 21 units. The development is located on the west side of Coco Plum Drive and is opposite the canal from Shelter Bay Marine boatyard.

The three affordable duplexes will be built nearer the intersection of Coco Plum Drive and Pescayo Avenue. Only the middle unit will be accessed from Pescayo Avenue and the other two will be accessed from Coco Plum Drive.

The council also approved a conditional use permit for Johnny Morris’ Floridian Holdings, the company behind the development of Valhalla Island Resort. 

Morris is the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which also owns Cabela’s sporting stores and some resorts in the Midwest.

The resort parcel is 66 acres on Crawl Key, at MM 57. The developers will build the resort on just 26 acres, leaving the rest of the area in its natural state. The plans call for 29 standard hotel rooms in the proposed lodge, and the rest split among 50 villas, cottages and homes.

Charlotte Twine
Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines;; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.