Over-Development, Cronyism, and Corruption in the Middle Keys

Cities and towns love development. The more the better. More money – for rich people – more tourists, and more – low paying – jobs. That’s partly why the Marathon City Council rubberstamped a proposal to redevelop the Sombrero Country Club into what will become Florida Keys Resort.

The newly approved development may also endanger a threatened bird and the sanity of nearby residents, while calling into questions the ethics of elected government in Marathon.

Burrowing owl photo0001

The Bird

It’s well documented that Burrowing owls have lived on the Sombrero Country Club golf course for many years. The club uses the image of the owl in its logo. Continue reading

It’s The Law, Man

Marijuana poster

Wasting police time; wasting taxpayer dollars

There aren’t many issues that Americans agree on in this era of divisive politics. The country has been fractured by innumerable partisan confrontations from foreign wars to immigration to birth control. And yet a clear majority of people in the United States do consistently agree on one issue: legalization of marijuana.

Not medical marijuana either. Smoking dope, man.

When the White House created its website Change.Org it asked the public to vote on the “Top 10 Ideas for Change in America.” The result? The call to “legalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana” placed #1 in the 2010 Change.org online vote. Continue reading

Fouling Our Nest Part II: Let Us Spray

Spray
Workers digging trench for sewer line in front of the author’s house stand in chest-high salt water.

Workers digging trench for sewer line in front of the author’s house stand in chest-high salt water.

Anyone who has lived in the Keys for any length of time knows that the ground we live on is very porous. Made up of either coral or limestone rock, the surface of these islands resembles flat colanders, allowing everything that falls on it to eventually pass directly through the ground to the salt water below, a mere few feet.

When the contractors dug trenches for the sewers in Marathon, those cavities immediately filled with salt water that rose and fell with the tide. As a result, anything that is sprayed or poured onto the thin skin that separates us from the ocean below finds its way into that ocean.

So, for example, herbicides that anyone sprays throughout the Keys would not only kill weeds and other plants but also would eventually become part of the ecosystems in our oceans.

Who sprays in the Keys?

Continue reading

Fouling Our Nest Part 1: Mosquito Control and the Ecology of the Keys

Mosquito

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 3.32.57 PM I woke up this afternoon

I saw both cars were gone

I felt so low down deep inside

I threw my drink across the lawn

 — Martin Mull, Shaker Heights Blues

I read in the Keynoter that the president of the gated and very wealthy Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo pleaded for an aerial spraying before last Friday because of an invasion of salt marsh mosquitoes.

“Most of our nearly 2,000 or so members and guests will have had their Fourth of July ruined,” Ocean Reef President Paul Astbury wrote to Mosquito Control.

Tragic.
Continue reading

Zecca Sentenced to Ten Years in Federal Prison

BREAKING NEWS LOGO

A clearly frustrated U.S. federal Judge Jose E. Martinez imposed the maximum allowable ten-year sentence on admitted murder-for-hire perpetrator Dennis Zecca in a sentencing hearing at the Federal Court Building in Key West today. Zecca has been convicted of hiring someone to kill Marathon realtor Bruce Schmitt for reasons still unknown. Martinez wondered aloud what everyone else has been wondering, why. His sentence came after an emotional 15-minute statement by Schmitt to the court.

Check out Friday’s Blue Paper for the full story about what happened inside the courtroom.

BOOK REVIEW: Sustainable [R]evolution [North Atlantic Books]

Sustainable Revolution coverReading Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox’s new book is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because the volume describes in varying detail more than 62 ecovillages, urban farms, and communities from all over the world working toward sustainability.

But the paperback is also a downer because it highlights what can be accomplished but isn’t in almost all cities and towns. Here in the Keys for instance, a place that is more than suitable for cutting-edge efforts to reduce human impact upon deteriorating habitats and our climate, nothing of the sort has been contemplated let alone implemented. Continue reading

More Bull from Marathon City Council

Lego Lighthouse

 Lego Lighthouse

The Marathon City Council on Tuesday agreed to spend as much as $ 9,250 to investigate the true cost associated with moving a historic Fresnel lighthouse lens back to Marathon.

Florida Keys Keynoter

This is not a joke. Well, not an actual meant-to-be-funny-joke anyway. It might be Vice Mayor Chris Bull’s idea of a joke, but it’s hard to imagine that most of the taxpayers in Marathon would get the punch line.

That’s $ 9,250 in taxpayer’s money. That’s $ 9,250 that could have been spent on making the new city hall more energy efficient. Or the city itself. It might even pay for making a replica of the lens out Legos.

A little background. Sombrero Reef lies about eight miles off Marathon’s shores and is a much sought after spot for divers and snorkelers. The lighthouse on the reef was put in service in 1858, automated in 1960, and is still in operation. The upper platform, 40 feet above the water, held staff quarters but now the light is automated. The original lens, what’s known as a first order Fresnel lens, is on display in the Key West Lighthouse Museum. Continue reading

Welber on Welber: Special Interest Trumps Climate Action

welber interviews welber

welber interviews welber

“I’m very proud of that,” Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent said after looking through the climate assessment last week. “I’m very proud to be part of an initiation in a region that contains millions of people.”

– Neugent commenting on praise for four-county compact that produced the Southeast Regional Action Plan

Blue Paper

We want to welcome back environmentalist Michael Welber for another in-depth interview.

Welber

More like survivalist.

Blue Paper

Oh? And why is that?

Welber

You’ve probably been snoozing this month, which would actually be a good thing given the continuing inexplicable actions of some of our fine county commissioners.

Blue Paper

What is it this time? Did they buy another restaurant? Continue reading

Sacred Cows and Hypocrisy at City Hall

sacred cow-1

When Key West city commissioners voted to override staff recommendations and choose a higher bid for trash pickup, people in the audience were stunned. But no one was more stunned than Jody Smith Williams.

Smith Williams played a central role in getting the city to hire Kessler Consulting. Their job was to study how trash in Key West was picked up and then recommend improvements. The key alteration was switching from two trash pickups per week to one. That approach was part of what came to be known as the 1-1-1 plan with one trash pickup, one recycling pickup and one for yard waste. What shocked her most was the return to two trash pickups per week.

For over seven years, she advocated for developing a resource recovery system based on expert consultation that would help Key West do something better with its resources than hauling all the trash all the way to Broward County and burning 93 percent of it in the waste-to-energy incinerator there. Continue reading

City Council Debates Color of Deck Chairs On Titanic

Titanic sinking

Members of the Marathon city council recently debated whether there would be a cultural center or banquet hall in the planned $ 5 million (plus or minus) city hall. The new building will replace the current trailers that house city functions. And then, on Tuesday, Councilman Chris Bull moved that the city bring the old lens from Sombrero lighthouse “back to Marathon” and put it in the city hall, a very expensive proposal that will involve redesigning the lobby area and installing a humidity controlled room.

In all their discussions, the focus has been about money though Bull seems to have forgotten that.

“We’re building this one time and it’s for 50 years,” Vice Mayor Bull said.

Fifty years? What will the Keys be like in even 30 years? Continue reading

Marathon Council Suffers From Short-term Memory Loss

kick can

kick can

Anyone who has spent any time watching the Marathon city council in action will end up citing the now well over-used cliché, kicking the can down the road. While deferring action when it comes to pig ownership or dog parks or invocations may not matter all that much, the council’s lack of movement on selecting a new city manager does. It leaves the city rudderless.

On January 18, the council voted to select an interim city manager for a term of three months while the group searched for a replacement for Roger Hernstadt, who had just resigned. At their next meeting, without much public deliberation, the council installed Mr. Marathon, Mike Puto, as that temporary person. Now, nearly 120 days later, the council has done the minimum to move the process along. Continue reading

Dearth Day: How Even Environmentalists Are Accepting The Inevitable

Dearth Day: How even environmentalists are accepting the inevitable  When sorrow draws near, The gardens of the soul will lie desolate, Wilting; joy and song will die. Dark is life, dark is death.  Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) -- Gustav Mahler  It was Earth Day this week.   Companies peddling environmentally sound products flooded in-boxes with promos for Earth Day sales. And environmental organizations did the same, extending eager hands for donations.   I don’t think the activists who launched Earth Day, fresh off vigorous demonstrations against the Viet Nam war, would be too enamored of the event’s activities in the Keys. There was a native plant day in the Upper Keys. A 5K run/walk in Key West a couple of weeks ago marked the event. And so did a fair at Bahia Honda, also two weeks ago.  What there wouldn’t have been is a massive demonstration to demand reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent right now. Today.   A history of buzzwords  Back when Earth Day began the watchword was ecology.   As awareness about global warming became more widespread, sloganeering used the word green instead of ecology. Even Marathon had a Green Team. But, as most things go, corporate America co-opted “green” and applied that label to just about everything that wasn’t blatantly poisonous.   Seeing that, the emphasis shifted from green to sustainability. Recognizing the change, Key West appointed a sustainability coordinator. Monroe County has done the same with its sustainability program manager. Trouble is, in an area that imports just about everything – food, power, gasoline, and water – it’s nigh on impossible to be sustainable. And even when there is an opportunity to dial up sustainability by returning yard waste materials to the earth via mulching and composting, the county tilts toward shipping it out.   But don’t fear. We have a new buzz word: adaptation.   Now that the country, the state, the cities, and the county have done virtually nothing to head off climate change and the subsequent sea level rise and now that scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have determined that a 2 centigrade rise in global temperatures is a given, the state and the county say we must think about adapting to a new reality.   That means sea level rise. According to this map [EMBED LINK] http://ssrf.climatecentral.org/#location=FL_State_12&state=Florida&level=5&category=Population&geo=County&pt=p&target=&p=S&stLoc=FL_State_12&folder=Population 100 percent of the populace of the Keys will be vulnerable to a 5-foot surge or sea level rise.   For Monroe County and all other coastal regions, adaptation means planning now for the damage that sea level rise will cause in low lying areas. What will adaptation mean here in the Florida Keys? Raising the highways, hardening utilities, building dikes and levees, improving waste water systems and even changing our minds about letting all those people with what were formerly known as illegal downstairs enclosures keep their properties intact. The Keys will have to build up.   Where is the money going to come from for all this? The county can’t even extract money from the state to build a sewer system that was mandated nearly 40 years ago. Newer sewer systems, if the Keys are going to adapt, will need to be constructed to ensure they won’t be damaged by encroaching sea water.   In other words, adaptation means nothing. Nothing at all. The current Climate Change Advisory Committee will be reviewing a document put out by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) that is full of words such as “optional” and “may” and even “holistic planning,” whatever that is. The plan is to study the threat of sea level rise and develop best practices and conduct pilot studies. The first pilot will be in Ft. Lauderdale, a community rewarded by the state for taking some action on the consequences of climate change right now.   In the words of the Adaptation Action Areas plan that DEO issued,   “The City of Ft. Lauderdale, in cooperation with Broward County, will serve as a pilot to test the adaptation options. The results of this process will be compiled into a guidance document to assist Florida communities that choose to address Adaptation Action Areas in their local comprehensive plan.”  And,   “The main difference between the supplemental project and the DEO’s 5-year initiative is that the pilots under the 5-year strategy will represent an average community in Florida and will take a holistic approach to adaptation planning. The pilot under this application will be an advanced community on the forefront of adaptation planning in the state, ready to take on highly targeted tasks related to how adaptation action areas will be addressed in the local comprehensive plan.”  That average community is not Monroe County even though the Keys are the most threatened area in all of Florida. The county’s inaction results in Broward being chosen. The options that the state develops will be tested through a pilot project that will ultimately result in a proposed amendment to the local comprehensive plan that addresses sea level rise adaptation. Given how long it takes to change the county’s comprehensive plan, with committees meeting and public input provided and more committees meeting with more public announcements and forums before actually delivering anything to the Board of County Commissioners, it would seem wise to start looking at property in Tennessee now.   Too little, too late  How long? According to the Citizen in Tuesday’s paper,   “Since 2009, the county has been working with the private planning firm Keith and Schnars to update and rewrite its comprehensive land-use plan. County officials expect to complete the process by the end of the year.  The comp plan establishes the overarching policies for development in the county. It takes into account climate change and sea-level rise, the total carrying capacity of the Keys, protection of endangered species, and safe evacuation of the Keys prior to a hurricane.”  So it has taken 5 years to complete changes in the current comp plan. Given that DEO will conduct its pilot for five years and then provide Monroe with what has been learned it appears, it could be ten years before the county undertakes any meaningful work toward this new buzzword, adaptation.   Maybe the Keys should wait for the next environmental fad: climate refugees.    This also means that people can now forget reducing their greenhouse gas impact. Not many bothered anyway. Get out your kayak and tie it to your house. Build a dock on your currently dry lot. Think about pontoons and a propeller for your car. Start building a dike around your house.   Better yet, move. Like to the mountains of Tennessee.

The 6-foot surge from Hurricane Wilma under the author’s house in 2005

When sorrow draws near,

The gardens of the soul will lie desolate,

Wilting; joy and song will die.

Dark is life, dark is death.

 

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

– Gustav Mahler

It was Earth Day this week.

Companies peddling environmentally sound products flooded in-boxes with promos for Earth Day sales. And environmental organizations did the same, extending eager hands for donations.

I don’t think the activists who launched Earth Day, fresh off vigorous demonstrations against the Viet Nam war, would be too enamored of the event’s activities in the Keys. There was a native plant day in the Upper Keys. A 5K run/walk in Key West a couple of weeks ago marked the event. And so did a fair at Bahia Honda, also two weeks ago. Continue reading

The Dumbshine State

Solar panels being installed on house in Marathon

A rally last week in Tallahassee was staged to encourage solar energy development in Florida. Fortunately it became political because otherwise the mainstream media might not have covered it. Organizers used the event to accuse Gov. Rick Scott of blocking solar energy initiatives in the state at the behest of the big power companies.

Because Scott’s election-year rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, attended the rally, the media paid some attention.

What should have made bigger news is how the state has placed its legislative thumb firmly on the development of renewable power. Florida has the third-largest potential for rooftop solar generation in the nation but ranks 18th in solar installations.

KEYS, which delivers power west of the Seven Mile Bridge, illustrates what is typical for the rest of the state. Look at information provided by KEYS spokesperson Lynne Tejeda about the sources of the utilities power. Continue reading

Crane Point Points Fingers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When the Department of Economic Opportunity, source of a $ 727,000 Community Development Block Grant to Marathon for the construction of a zip-line course at the Crane Point Nature Center, asked for justification for Crane Point’s delinquency in submitting two required and very late documents, board chair Jeff Smith wrote, “The delays are attributed to third party appellant actions regarding the Administrative Height Variance issued by the City’s Planning Director.”

Not exactly.

What Smith neglects to say is that the tardy environmental assessment was due to DEO in March 2013, and the wage decision request in June 2013. The appeal of the decision by Planning Director George Garrett to allow 46.25-foot high towers – nearly ten feet higher than Marathon allows – began in July 2013, well after Crane Point’s deadlines.

But the problems didn’t begin in 2013 or even 2014. Continue reading

Mano a Mano: Yard Waste Redux

welber interviews welber

In the following interview, Blue Paper columnist Michael Welber interviews former environmental activist Michael Welber. This Welber launched the city of Marathon Green Team in 2007, was a member of what was then called Monroe County’s Green Initiative Task Force, and has written extensively about environmental issues. He wrote recently (http://thebluepaper.com/article/debate-about-yard-waste-incineration-flares-up/) about the county’s plans to burn yard waste instead of shipping it to Broward or composting it here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blue Paper

We’re delighted to have you with us today, Mr. Welber, so we can keep up with the yard waste issue. You certainly have what they call environmental bona fides.

Welber

Damn right I do.

Blue Paper

So, Mr. Welber, do you think pigs will fly in Monroe County?

Welber

Wha?? Continue reading

Marathon Diary: Sliding into Chaos

Front loader at Sombrero

Exhibit A: Democracy takes a back seat in the Middle Keys

The Marathon City Council, after some promises about making careful considerations, wasted no time in appointing former councilman John Bartus to the seat recently and abruptly vacated by Ginger Snead. Snead, to the shock of many, had suddenly resigned citing “rumors.” It’s never been clear what that meant.

While Bartus had served on the council and even been mayor, his last run at office didn’t work out so well. He came in fourth, trailing Mike Cinque, Rich Keating, and Don Vasil in 2009. In other words, the council appointed someone who the voters had soundly rejected in an actual election. Bartus had been president of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce and was nominated to the council and promoted by Councilman Chris Bull, also closely connected with the chamber. The rest of the council went along rather meekly.

In another setback for democracy in the Middle Keys, the committee assigned the task of reviewing Marathon’s charter has recommended that elections be scheduled for March instead of November. The voters had approved by a 58 percent margin moving the elections to November from March but now the charter review committee recommends the city revert to its original schedule. Continue reading