by Arnaud and Naja Girard........
To allow an additional 60 plus apartments on his property, a Key West developer nearly doubled the size of his parcel – on paper. And some of the City Commissioners, who last month signed off on the development agreement, knew all about it.
Under Key West zoning density ratios, developer/lawyer Barton Smith needed a minimum of 4.5 acres to build 62 new housing units on his property at Sunset Marina.
“And so here are the boundaries of the parcel. I click on each point of intersection. The computer does the math.” We are sitting with Jim Gale, in front of his computer at the Property Appraiser’s office.
“We have an excellent software program to compute total area,” explained Scott Russel, the Monroe County Property Appraiser.
The curser is flying from point to point on the lot’s upland boundary lines at 5555 College Road, Sunset Marina. A final double-click on the keyboard and “here it is -- roughly 134,000 sf -- that’s about 3.08 acres,” says Gale.
“Not 4.5? Are you sure?” we asked.
“Jim is the numbers guy,” said Property Appraiser, Scott Russel, “I have total faith in him.”
[Once the dockmaster’s office, which we discovered is actually on the water, is subtracted from the calculation the total upland area decreases. The official upland build-able area found by the Property Appraiser’s Office is 2.73 acres.]
Could Barton Smith, dubbed by County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy as the “devious” Mr. Smith, have actually nearly doubled the size of his parcel in his application? And if so, how did he get that past the City’s Planning Department?
The documentation provided by the Property Appraiser’s Office is pretty clear. Smith pays taxes on 2.73 acres of commercial waterfront. The rest, over 71 acres, is baybottom, wetlands, and mangrove areas.
The project has triggered public outrage over Smith’s controversial interpretation of the 30% low and median-income affordable housing requirement: He somehow convinced a City Commission presiding over an unprecedented housing crisis that the requirement for a 30% ratio of lower-income affordable housing doesn’t apply to his project.
We asked the Planning Department for a copy of their calculations for the size of the upland area for Sunset Marina. Planners apparently knew we’d spoken to the Property Appraiser and immediately volunteered that, “the Property Appraiser’s Office are not licensed surveyors,” and provided a copy of a survey that Barton Smith had given them.
The “survey” however has a disclaimer that specifically indicates that it is “not a boundary survey,” and “the legal description has been provided by the client or his or her representative.”
It was an electronic scan, and would you believe that precisely where the estimated size of the upland area was to be indicated, an unfortunate crease in the paper made the first digit entirely unreadable?
We asked for clarification but have not received a response as of press time.
But here’s the thing. In fact, when it comes to Sunset Marina, apparently “size doesn’t matter.”
Going back into the history of the property, State documents show that Sunset Marina has reached “build-out.” The last large-scale construction on the property was permitted in 1998. 60 condominium units were approved in a settlement agreement between the State of Florida Department of Community Affairs [DCA], the City of Key West, and the property owner on the condition that development of Sunset Marina would occur only as spelled out in the agreement.
In 2010 the former owner, Sunset Ventures, tried to push for new construction. At the time, the Planning Department objected to the project stating:
“Because the settlement agreement limits total development on the site, modifications to the development program can only be accomplished through modifications to the agreement.”
“Sunset Marina,” concluded then Planning Director Amy Kimball-Murley, had reached “build-out according to the agreement.”
But if you are the “devious one” and your bag of tricks includes the allegiance of the Key West establishment you might try buying Sunset Marina’s parking lot for a song and turning it into gold by getting the system to grant you development permits that would be allowed to no one else.
The State will soon begin reviewing the new Sunset Marina development agreement. According to State documents the 1998 settlement agreement is equivalent to a “deed restriction” and its covenants “run with the land.”
Interestingly, the 2010 development proposal got a lot of attention before being withdrawn. It was on City Commission agendas not once, but three times. Mayor Cates, Commissioners Weekley and Lopez all sat on the dais and public documents clearly spelled out the size of the parcel [2.8 acres] and the restrictions contained in the settlement agreement.
Somehow, this year, through those secret meetings with developers that some Commissioners pretend did not take place, they forgot all about the agreement and the “deed restrictions” the City had agreed to, and all about the true size of the parcel.
And 2.8 acres turned into 4.5.