County and federal officials discuss the future of Wisteria Island, just across the harbor from Key West. CONTRIBUTED

After spending years in court, asserting its ownership of Wisteria Island, the federal government now wants to give the island to Monroe County and help the county create a park there — eventually.

The process will take years of planning, permitting, zoning changes and, yes, continued litigation. But officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the federally owned island, met recently with County Commissioner Michelle Coldiron and County Attorney Bob Shillinger, to start discussions. 

Representatives from the federal agency also spoke at the Nov. 17 county commission meeting. 

“It’s a spoil island, we know that, but it has a real practical use, and we want to help with that,” BLM District Manager Bob Swithers told the commission, adding that his agency has started contracting for an environmental assessment of the island, including aerial surveys and feet-on-the-ground reports by government workers.

The county commission agenda also included a very preliminary proposal for a county-managed park on Wisteria Island that would preserve native trees and habitat, but also include beach chair, kayak and Hobie cat rentals, concessions, ferry service, a restaurant, a managed mooring field and 24-hour security. 

Several residents spoke against the park plan, saying there was no need to install the same tourist attractions and facilities that are plentiful in Key West to the undeveloped island that has no utilities. Resident Diane Beruldsen pointed out how short-staffed the Keys already are, and questioned the wisdom of building a new park and concessions that will require more workers and law enforcement.

Ownership dispute continues

Attorney Bart Smith, who represents the local, private company FEB Corp., also spoke at the commission meeting, reminding lawmakers that his client still claims ownership of the island and is appealing a 2020 judge’s ruling that Wisteria Island belongs to the federal government. A hearing for the case is scheduled for March 2022, Smith told the county commission last week.

“Because title is still in dispute, we think it’s premature and imprudent for the county to move ahead with any actions until the ownership is decided,” Smith said, adding that “the situation on the ground there is not friendly; there’s a lot of crime.”

Sheriff Rick Ramsay has been making that argument for years, and after the county commission meeting on Nov. 17, he told US 1 Radio, “This island is in crisis. BLM has now seen for themselves what’s happening there. The island is unsafe.”

He was referring to the lawlessness of an offshore island, inhabited at various times by up to 45 people who live in makeshift homeless camps on the island, or on derelict vessels anchored just offshore — vessels that have no sewage holding tanks, and are not using the city’s pump-out services, “so feces is going straight into the water,” Ramsay said.

Let’s back up a bit

We called it Christmas Tree Island until a decade or so ago, when the ownership dispute reminded us that the man-made island, 645 yards across the harbor from Key West, was officially named Wisteria Island after a federal steamer ship called Wisteria sank when moored at the island, then burned to the waterline.

When the island last made news, the local Bernstein family and their company, FEB Corp., were asserting ownership and filing legal challenges. But in November 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) declared the federal government owned the island. The DOI had initially indicated the island did not belong to the feds, as it was made from fill and not naturally occurring. But subsequent research revealed presidential orders from 1908 and 1924 directing the island be reserved for Navy use, and a 1962 executive order transferring ownership from the Navy to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Miami Herald reported.

But the legal challenges continued. 

In 2020, a federal judge ruled that the federal government owns Wisteria Island, as it was created by the Navy as a fill for dredging operations, and its deed was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior in 1982.

FEB Corp. has appealed that 2020 ruling, and that is the focus of the hearing scheduled for March 2022, FEB attorney Smith reminded county lawmakers on Nov. 17.

Commissioner Holly Raschein acknowledged the ownership quandary and said, “I think the legalities need to be determined.” She also questioned the expense of installing utilities at the offshore island. “Is BLM going to hand us $100 million to do that?”

Commissioners Craig Cates, Michelle Coldiron and David Rice expressed optimism and support for the potential partnership with BLM, but acknowledged the unanswered question of ownership.

“I’m pleased that BLM has realized Wisteria Island is a gem that needs to be preserved and cleaned up,” Coldiron said. “It’s my understanding BLM, not Monroe County, would fund the cleanup. I feel this will just be a parallel track for us regarding what we can potentially do there.”

Cates also acknowledged the ownership question, but said, “I’m excited it will stay in public hands if that’s how this turns out. But if BLM will clean the island up and allow law enforcement more of a presence there, then I’m glad we’re going in this direction.”

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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.