Marathon’s Planning Board voted 4-1 to deny Valhalla Resort, put forward by Johnny Morris Signature Resorts, to be developed on Crawl Key, or the Grassy Key stretch as it’s known to locals. The site is located just east of Curry Hammock State Park. The board considered zoning and flood map changes, the conditional use and development agreement, and abandoning the plat including roads. 

Only Chairman Lynn Landry voted in favor of the project. 

“I think this is a good project for that area,” he said. “I know Johnny Morris bought that property a long time ago. And I don’t think Johnny Morris or Bass Pro have ever done a development that wasn’t good quality. They have a reputation of protecting and preserving for future generations.”

The City of Marathon’s Planning Board only makes recommendations. The final authority rests with the Marathon City Council who will vote on this project in the near future. 

The other four members of the planning board — Mike Leonard, Matt Sexton, Susan Klock and Mike Cinque — had concerns, however. Most cited the conservation zoning for the property fronting U.S.1 where the resort intends to put the check-in desk, guest parking and other services buildings.

Marathon City Staff recommended the zoning be changed from conservation to mixed use on both the zoning and Future Land Use Map (FLUM) maps for only the front portion of the project near U.S.1. The city staff noted that the conservation area had been “disturbed,” meaning it has previously been cleared and/or filled. Most likely the disturbance has to do with its proximity to Overseas Highway and Banana Boulevard. The rest of the property — where the villas and lodge will go — is already properly zoned.

“Changing the zoning will set a dangerous precedent for any other landowner who has massive acreage that can’t legally be developed right now,” said Sexton. Sexton said he realizes the optics of the situation because he is currently redeveloping a hotel further up the road at Grassy Flats Resort. “We have so much disheveled, abandoned, previously developed land — and that is exactly what I am on.” Sexton said the plan to maximize use of every part of the property is not conservation, but “greenwashing” — an attempt to disguise development as environmentally responsible. 

Cinque also cited the zoning change but said he is also concerned about the impacts to Marathon when it comes to workforce housing, employee recruitment and accessibility. 

“You are asking the citizens of Marathon to make a sacrifice to give up the conservation land,” Cinque said. Currently, citizens do not have access to privately owned conservation land, nor can they reach the ocean from city-owned Banana Boulevard that does not extend to the water. Sexton also mentioned access, but was more concerned about the Grassy Key sandbar on the oceanside, just east of the planned resort. 

“The resort will own a big chunk of bay bottom. How long before they figure out a way to prevent people from congregating on the sandbar?” Sexton asked. 

Leonard and Klock both said they voted “no” because of the lack of options presented by the developer and architect. 

“I asked whether the resort could be redesigned without needing the (zoning change), and it seemed like the unspoken answer was that the applicant would have to go back to the drawing board and wouldn’t want to try,” said Klock.

Leonard said that question about redesigning the site plan was asked multiple times, with no answer from the applicant. 

“I don’t know if there is another option. I would be speculating, but most likely it’s because it would cost more money. If they have a solid financial reason for doing what they did … most likely my vote would have been different,” Leonard said. “This is a high, high quality project being put on by a world class organization. That the two homeowners in the middle of the project are in support of it carried a lot of weight for me. It was not easy for me to vote no.”

Leonard said he hopes that the developer will have more options to present to the Marathon City Council when it considers the project.

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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.