by Arnaud and Naja Girard…….
Key West Planning Director, Thaddeus Cohen, “came to a mutual agreement” [with the City Manager] “to end Mr. Cohen’s tenure with the City.” The official explanation is quite diplomatic: “The transition will better serve the City’s needs.” “Planning is a complex and challenging department…” reads the official PR statement that the City sent to The Blue Paper.
But, on the inside, people in the know describe some serious bad weather inside the Planning Department. There are reports of shouting matches between staff and the Planning Director that were “heard through the walls” at the new City Hall.
“Mr. Cohen’s tenure” has been marred with controversy; some of it not entirely of his making.
First, there was the affordable housing BPAS issue. In mid-August last year the City Commission, faced with an unprecedented housing crisis, had agreed to reserve all BPAS [building allocations] for the coming year for affordable housing. During multiple public meetings planning consultant, Jim Hendrick, warned the City that such a move was contrary to the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Hendrick recommended that the City also amend its Comprehensive Plan. That was not done. As predicted, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity [DEO] rejected the City’s effort, because it was contrary to the Comprehensive Plan. The Planning Department missed the deadline to appeal the DEO’s decision and has not brought forward the necessary Comprehensive Plan amendment.
In the meantime, processing of BPAS allocations are moving along according to the old code. For this year, the Planning Department sanctioned allocations for 29 market rate units, 10 new transients, and only 22 affordable units. The Planning Board adopted the planning department’s controversial recommendation to award transient units but awarded all 10 to Ed Swift and Chris Belland for an Eisenhower Drive project. [Planners had recommended the 10 should go to a different developer who was also developing affordable housing. Belland and Swift have been caught multiple times violating the City’s code relative to unlawful transient rentals at property owned by Swift and managed by Belland at Key Cove on Roosevelt Boulevard.]
Then there was the LUD scandal. The Blue Paper reported that certain homeowners were using a mind-boggling loophole, available through application to the Planning Director. If you could prove that you were illegally renting units on a transient basis on April 1, 2010 then the Planning Director would recognize your house, and all the illegal units you’d secretly created inside it, as a legal “guest house”. Many applicants would prove their case by proudly producing their code enforcement citations for illegal transient rentals. In all fairness to Mr. Cohen, that shameful loophole was created by his predecessor, Donald Craig. However, despite citizens’ outrage Cohen never proposed a code amendment to shut down the practice.
The affordable housing code amendment Mr. Cohen did propose turned out to be even more controversial. Today, the City requires 30% affordable housing for any “new” residential construction project in Key West. Many hoped the amendments would finally create the code needed to extend the requirement to “redevelopment” projects of substantial size. Thaddeus Cohen, however, proposed a reduction of the affordable housing low and median-income ratio from 30% to 15%.
Mr. Cohen also endorsed attorney Barton Smith’s controversial reading of the affordable housing code on a new development on Stock Island. Cohen was so lenient, that he let Smith’s development project at Sunset Marina go through with only 11% low and median-income affordable housing. The Planning Director also made no opposition to Mr. Smith’s maximum density calculation for the project based on 4.5 acres of buildable land even though it was approximately 1.5 acres larger than what the county property appraiser and the State’s DEO’s records showed.
There were also multiple complaints by residents about controversial neighborhood projects that they had not been properly notified about.
One insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Blue Paper that certain Commissioners were losing patience. Apparently, City Manager Jim Scholl, had given Mr. Cohen “20 days to straighten out his department.”
The postponement of several important items on last week’s Planning Board agenda, because planning staff had not issued the proper legal notices, may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Reading between the lines of the official statement about Mr. Cohen’s departure, it appears his management style may have fallen out of step with Key West.
Did they mean that Mr. Cohen was spending too much time planning large projects, like the controversial hotel at the Truman waterfront, and not enough time micro-managing “vital day-to-day customer services” or did he lose his footing in one of those secret tug-of-wars Key West is famous for?
Here is the full official statement sent to The Blue Paper by City spokesperson Alyson Crean.
Mr. Cohen will continue in his role as Planning Director through the end of this month.