Big Development: Out of Control

Rick Boettger
Rick Boettger

by Rick Boettger….

In the last 20 years we’ve seen grand promises for the Truman Annex and Sunset Key be dishonored, the Truman Waterfront get lost in the wilderness, and Wisteria Island enmeshed in a dangerous tangle of lawsuits and brutal law enforcement. What have we learned from our errors of oversight in the Nineties and Oughts that can help us do better on the Waterfront and Wisteria?

I will be analyzing mainly how the City of Key West controls the development of immensely valuable public goods, but also seeing how the County, the Tax Appraiser, County Clerk, the State Attorney, and Tax Collector are involved.

Big money may indeed be at the root of developments on the Annex and Sunset Key in the past, as the East Coast tycoon Walshes were involved. We have the proven history of County Mayor Jack London’s bribes and, currently, the combination of the County’s inexplicable alliance with a single grinder pump supplier combined with Commissioner George Neugent’s admitted increase in his bank account of $150,000 in a year.

But what I believe so far is a bit less sensational, but far more important, because unlike just plain graft and corruption, we can actually fix the challenges facing us, especially with the current city leadership we enjoy. Immediate threats are co-opting the Waterfront, losing Wisteria, and, just this month, losing the wonderful little park on Southard and Emma serving the one-time “affordable housing” at Shipyard. News alert: they want to put a “business building” on it.

Who are “they”? TAMPOA, The Truman Annex Master Property Owners Association. They were big news in the late 2000’s, suing the city of Key West for years to be able to put a gate at their Southard Street entrance. There were protests, they called the cops on Commissioner Lopez, their own members complained about their spending an estimated $100,000 of their money on a losing legal case that made them look bad in the community.

TAMPOA was crushed in that case by a U.S. lawsuit against them that was a total defeat—admitted victory by the U.S. enforcing the clear easement that had been granted in Pritam’s 1987 agreement, Exhibit C, no right of appeal, everything but paying the U.S. legal fees. They then lost another case when they persecuted two homeowners who had opposed the gates suit, and who suffered damage after Wilma, for not getting it fixed fast enough. A wealth of evidence showed Judge Fowler they were doing everything they could, and TAMPOA lost another.

So now the same TAMPOA honcho who led those losing fights, Sterling Christian, has met with interim Planning Director Kevin Hunt to discuss putting a business building on the small park on Southard at Emma. I have tried repeatedly to contact Sterling, and he won’t respond. Even though we share an odd connection: he bought my Key Haven house from me in 2001, when my ex-wife made us be snowbirds out of Austin. Just down the street from Boog Powell and Ed Swift. A wonderful house, with a boat in the backyard canal. I’m sayin’, we’re literal homies.

I simply wanted to ask him if he knew something about the 12th Amendment to the Truman Annex development agreement that I didn’t. Could he show me a document saying this dedicated parkland/open space was actually designated for future business development? That is entirely possible. Whenever you’re talking 12 amendments, anything might be true.

But when a guy like Sterling doesn’t respond to a guy like me, I smell blood in the water. Blood of the same type that cost us many promised public goods in Truman Annex and Sunset Key in the past. I think his meeting with Kevin was Sterling’s sniffin’ out the new guy to see if it was like the old days, in the 90’s, when agreements didn’t mean a thing and the developers could do whatever they wanted.

The history is sordid. In brief, the affordable housing for local workers in the Shipyard was quickly snapped up, resold at higher process, and used for short-term rentals. Space in the building now used by Historic Tours was supposed to be cheap studios for local artists. Substantial park space on the mainland never happened. Traffic diversion away from North Roosevelt was detailed and, again, never happened. Access to Sunset Key’s beach was supposed to be, first, free, and then a “reasonable” fee, but became $100 for a family, well enough to keep it private.

There is a book-length story behind each of these. For example, Helen Harrison remembers Roberta Marx and Rick Worth having cheap studios in the non-HTA building when she had one in the barracks behind the Mel Fisher museum that were demolished to make expensive condominiums. Jimmy Weekley told me about famous restaurateur Paul Tripp’s buying three of the Shipyard condos for his restaurant managers, but their not wanting to live in them because they were too small, so he sold them. Bernstein Park on Stock Island supposedly being a gift, but actually being sold for nearly a million dollars to Monroe County.

But the stories are not the point. The point is why this all happened, and why it might happen again with two incredibly beautiful, valuable, and important properties, the Truman Waterfront and Wisteria Island. I will be investigating the past with an eye to informing the future. This will be a year-long series of investigations. Stay tuned.

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2 thoughts on “Big Development: Out of Control

  1. Reading your article here and watching the video above reminds me of how the City preferred to pass on acquiring Peary Court which has 167 units now that are slated to be torn down for the rich and famous or whatever new development may land there.,.They did not have the cojones to fight the new Rick Scott DEO when it suddenly reversed its proactive position on affordable housing and said “anything’s ok with us” for the most part.They even tried to make the whole thing a transient gated community! The Mayor wanted the tax revenue as if that would make the workforce housing problem better. Course they weren’t told about the sale to Balfour Beatty by the Navy and did not really have the foresight to see it right under their noses even though Jim Scholl was the man behind the negotiations as former Captain at NAS and then City Manager..- we should have been able to buy it, but the game was rigged. Hopefully we will begin collecting the back taxes on them soon when the court rules on that 11 million dollar tax bill they owe the county.

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