December 30, 2016
by Naja Girard…….
He is renowned for his real estate prowess, selling 100-million-dollar hotels in Key West as if they are going out of style: Parrot Key Resort on Roosevelt Boulevard in 2014 sold for $100,000,000 and only 1 year later, in March of 2015, The Marker near Key West Bight sold for $96,250,000).
Pritam Singh, dubbed the Donald Trump of the Keys, is now ready to unveil his latest creation: Ocean’s Edge Key West on Stock Island (the old Oceanside Marina). People will say, “It’s a true Pritam Singh”: A high class bright white hotel emerging out of luxuriant clouds of palm fronds and flowering trees, dipping its feet into the blue waters of the Florida Straits.
But behind the scenes, for several months now, The Blue Paper has been recording interviews of people who claim they have been ruthlessly squeezed out by Mr. Singh’s “cut-throat business tactics” over at Oceanside Marina.
For one – they ask – how has Mr. Singh managed to turn 79 residential trailer homes into a 175-room hotel? What happened to the affordable housing component: The two residential units Mr. Singh should have deed restricted, affordable, for each new unit built at Oceanside Marina? And what about protecting existing port related activities?
Arguably, laws and regulations had to be twisted, bent, and even broken. As one critic of the project told us, “The true title for your article should be: Why Do We Even Bother Having Laws or a County Government?”
It could have been deemed impossible. Where today proudly stands Mr. Singh’s “175-room hotel,” only a few years ago, stood a vibrant working waterfront. It included two engine repair shops, a boat ramp, commercial fishing boats, a fuel dock, boat storage and repair facilities, charter boats and a liveaboard community of nearly one hundred people — and parking for it all. Most of it now gone, to make space for the hotel.
Yet in 2005 the county commission had decided that working waterfront areas had to be specially protected throughout the county and that Stock Island marinas would be joined under an even higher level of protection where “only port and port related land uses” could be authorized.
And then there was the affordable housing issue. On December 14, 2011, as the affordable housing crisis became a priority, the county renewed its moratorium against any new hotel rooms.
At that point the only loophole left to hotel developers was to purchase “transient units” already in existence in their “subarea” [in this case the Lower Keys] and move them to the location of their project.
Finally, the build-able surface at Oceanside was only 9.65 acres. Under the legally allowed density it appears that only 115 hotel units could have been legally constructed – not 175.*
Yet by December 2013, Pritam Singh had convinced the county to let him take over the working waterfront at Oceanside to build his “175-room hotel” while he possessed only 17 legal “hotel” building allocations, and the 2 to 1 deed restriction requirement was lost in the shuffle.
So how did he do it?
It’s October 30, 2013. Pritam Singh has the floor at the Monroe County Planning Commission meeting and with the benefit of hindsight you realize that gaining approval for a project has a lot to do with what you don’t say.
What does Singh say about protection of working waterfront? Nothing at all. And nobody on the county staff or board mentions the issue aside from a requirement to reserve up to 3 dock slips for commercial fishing boats. It is enough, apparently, that Mr. Singh makes the solemn (not kept) promise: “We are not displacing anyone.”
He never mentions the “hotel“ either: “I assume you have all been to Truman Annex?” asks Singh, referring to the rows of luxury homes he built in Key West in the 90’s, “It’s pretty much going to look like what I’ve done down there.”
His selling point was that he would be building and selling separate individual homes: “What we all want — to put our house by the water,” and there will be “green space and swimming pools in front for the homeowners.” A far cry from the hotel that he ultimately built.
To county government’s credit, Mr. Singh never told the commissioners he would be building a 175-room hotel. He claimed he would turn the 79 mobile home units transferred to his project into the equivalent of single family homes and that the individual “homeowners” would enjoy “the option” of renting to vacationers if they so desired.
The excuses however don’t go much further.
When Pritam Singh presented his plans, it became obvious that they were incompatible with the common definition of single family home development. The county staff initially reported on the incompatibility. Single family homes are defined as “detached” houses surrounded by a yard on all sides. They have independent utilities and a kitchen. Mr. Singh was piling up apartments three stories high. The proposed units had shared stairways, elevators, and walkways. At best it appeared to be a complex of multi-family apartments. The type of project that would require 2 deed restricted affordable units for every newly built dwelling.
But from that point on a painstaking review of the record shows that the county staff was going to twist and disregard county regulations in any way possible to support the project.
This is a list of some of the County regulations that were [arguably] violated:
- Hotel Rooms: Under the moratorium on new transient units, Mr. Singh should have been required to acquire 175 existing transient residential building allocations (transient ROGOs) for his “175-room hotel.” He apparently had only 17 such transient “hotel room” allocations. The rest were “permanent residential” allocations.
- 2 to 1 Rule for transfer from mobile home parks: All of the units are “attached” (without yards on all sides) and use “common accesses” [stairs, elevators, walkways] and as such can be defined as “multi-family” apartments as spelled out in county land development code section 101-1 “dwelling, apartment.” Under section 130-161.1, in order to legally transfer units from a mobile home park to a multi-family project or a working waterfront, the developer is required to purchase and deed restrict, as affordable housing, 2 units at the mobile home park in order to build just 1 new unit at his project site. It is known as the 2 to 1 rule. It is meant to protect both affordable housing and the working waterfront. Only transfers to single family lots or parcels can be made on a 1 to 1 basis.
Planning Commissioner Ron Miller smelled a rat. “The code specifies 2 to 1 for this kind of transfer,” said Miller at the October 30, 2013 meeting, “in my mind we are circumventing the code here.”
Mr. Singh convinced the county to let him get away with a 1 to 1 transfer on the promise that the 79 units he would build (spread across multiple 3-story buildings on one parcel of land) would qualify as “single family parcels or lots.” Mr. Singh would be required to deed each apartment separately and register individual real estate numbers with the property appraiser. However, this separate registration has not taken place and the fact that Oceanside had historically functioned as a “working waterfront” was never considered at all.
- “Permanent Residential Unit” plus “Lock-out”: The county allowed Mr. Singh to double the number of units from 79 to 158 by adding one rentable “lock-out” for each “permanent residential unit” transferred from the mobile home parks. Yet “lock-outs” are defined as “accessory units” to a primary “permanent residential unit.” Apparently, not one “permanent residential unit” was actually built. Pritam Singh was supposed to transfer the units from the mobile homes to build “permanent residential units” at Oceanside, equipped, as required by Monroe County Land Development code, with a kitchen that has, at a minimum, a refrigerator and a stove. But that never happened. There are no kitchen’s in the units at the Ocean’s Edge Hotel. Under Monroe County Land Development Code (101-1 definitions) hotel units may not be divided into separate rental units.
- Density: Finally, as mentioned earlier, it seems that the legally allowed density for Oceanside is limited to 115 hotel units — not 175.*
In the meantime, a vibrant liveaboard community has been destroyed, marine businesses have been displaced, the parking necessary to the operation of charter boats has been built over and a mockery has been made of the laws adopted for the protection of local residents.
* Assuming commercial density remained as described.