Wisteria, the little 22-acre island visible from Mallory Square and sister to Sunset Key, is not the Wild West. This last bit of raw land adjacent to Key West is a community that has been around for decades – developer Pritam Singh was rumored to have camped there at 17 – but now, post-Irma, it is offering a stopgap in the affordable housing crisis to a few individuals who simply have nowhere else to go.
“It’s a humanitarian story,” said Ken Higgins, retired businessman and Key West resident, who invited the Weekly to see the island he has enjoyed for years, often boating there to walk his dog on the pristine beaches. Impassioned about the community and angered about its bad reputation, Higgins wants Key West at large to see what he sees. Recently, Higgins helped do the homeless survey of the island and found between 20 and 30 locals are choosing the island as a home base. Yes, Higgins said, some are just plain homeless, but for others, it’s complicated.
“It’s two different communities: people who live here by choice and people who are refugees from the hurricane,” he said. A few individuals lost their boats during Irma and have nothing, some still have their boats and are waiting for repair, some have boats but use the island as a back yard of sorts. Some even stayed in FEMA hotels after Irma but chose to return to the island where it was more comfortable and familiar. Every case seems to be different, but without a doubt, the island is the only bit of usable land for the boaters from the mooring field.
Higgins would like to dispel the notion the island is just littered with reprobates. In fact, it has been the people of Wisteria who have maintained and cleaned the island both before and after the hurricane. Strolling around, Higgins points out the clean mangroves and trees surprisingly absent of hurricane debris, unlike many other Keys natural areas. There are trails and tidy encampments, including signs reminding people to remove trash.
“Everyone is very courteous and supportive of one another,” said Higgins.
Wisteria resembles an organized campsite. Individual areas have been carved out to house tents, jerry-rigged tarps and makeshift living rooms filled with couches and flat screen TVs. Residents have generators and wifi. In every way, it is a neighborhood full of homes, just without the four walls and tin roofs.
The Wisteria community feels defensive about the idea that the island is crime-riddled and has a negative impact on Key West.
“It’s not an easy life out here but it’s affordable,” said Jeep Caillouet, local entertainer, liveaboard boater and Wisteria local. “Freedom isn’t really free.” Having access to the island helps Caillouet live in Key West. “Never really been much theft, but we police ourselves and do not tolerate anyone who thinks differently. There have been differences, but we have island justice; they are asked to leave.”
According to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, there have been two calls to the island since Sept. 10, one for a sunken boat and another unspecified, where an officer was dispatched for a “watch order” and remained for 17 minutes before closing the case. Wisteria residents complain that crime committed on nearby boats is often misconstrued as happening on the island. For example, on Sept. 1, shots were fired on a boat near the island and MCSO responded, but not to the island itself.
“We are very glad they are cleaning it up,” said Captain David Dipre with Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Just a problem when more people are messing up than cleaning it up.” As for crime, Dipre said the difference between the island and the boaters is only a boat length. The FWC works closely with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office monitoring the island, but since it has yet to be determined who is the owner, the Bernstein family or the federal government, private property laws do not apply. The Bureau of Land Management, which has overseen the property since 2011, has not put up “No Trespassing” signs, so Dipre said the FWC and MCSO watch for things like health, safety, littering, drugs, and dumping boats. “For the most part people are happy; we are not coming after them. It’s not private property so they haven’t done anything wrong.”
On the other hand, Sheriff Rick Ramsay has expressed frustration at not obtaining BLM’s cooperation to enforce trespassing laws. According to Adam Linhardt, spokesperson for MSCO, “Ramsay remains committed to ensuring safety on Wisteria Island, as well as curbing the negative environmental impacts created by unregulated access to the island. We certainly hope the Bureau of Land Management will, in the near future, give us the tools we need to ensure Wisteria Island is a safer and cleaner place for everyone to enjoy.”
BLM did not respond to a request for information.
Local liveaboard boater and island advocate Cliff Hartman is looking toward Wisteria’s future. He wants to save the largest bit of green space available to Key West from development but also would like to see the island have better communication with the city. “We are trying to show Key West we are not a den of pirates, that the island can be managed,” said Hartman. “We want to get organized with the community at large and look at proposals for the future. If we don’t do it someone else will.” Hartman maintains developers are not impartial and care little for the environmental protection the island provides for fields of fresh conch and the endangered bird, the White-Crowned Pigeon. But also, Hartman finds the beaches invaluable for boaters to repair their dinghies and to use it for Saturday night get togethers.
Wisteria advocates are wary of government, of press, of development and yes, even crime. But seeing the indisputable value of Wisteria after Irma, now might be the time to consider its future and not let it sink like its namesake.
Shrouded in controversy, Wisteria Island’s future certainly sparks debate. From ownership disputes to an uneven reputation, the 22 acres of land mass made from dredged sediment and named after a sunken steamer is a hotbed of issues. Taking a trip to the tiny island offers a more complex view of the people who care deeply for it, why so many are fighting over it and a window into why its future really does matter for everyone. The Bureau of Land Management has domain of the island since 2011 after it was determined the Navy never technically relinquished ownership, although the Bernstein family has attempted to claim rights and develop the island.