Court-ordered move of Key West homeless shelter at least a year away

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

Despite the city being ordered four years ago to relocate the existing homeless shelter on Stock Island, it will be at least another year – and possibly longer – before that will happen, according to Key West City Manager Jim Scholl.

A judge ordered city officials to move the current Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS), which can house a total of 120 occupants a night, as the result of a lawsuit filed against the city in 2013. The city was sued by the condominium owners at next-door Sunset Marina, who alleged the city didn’t adhere to its own permitting rules when deciding to install the shelter next to the marina and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department on College Road. The judge agreed, ruling that the city must make a “good faith effort” to find another location.

But myriad delays have pushed that back. While the city has identified a new location on College Road for the shelter, the property is part of a larger, city-owned land parcel that commissioners envision as a badly-needed workforce housing development that would include a new homeless shelter. To get to the point where the project would be offered to developers to bid on, however, several steps had to be taken. One was to free up two of the parcels currently occupied by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and the Florida Keys SPCA pet shelter. The Mosquito Board’s lease will end in January, while the SPCA is building a new animal shelter, also on College Road, that is scheduled to be completed in December.

The zoning also had to be changed on the land parcel to allow more units to be built, a way to attract interested developers. The planning board recently signed off on the rezoning, which will now go before city commissioners for a first reading. But the density increase must also be approved by the state Department of Economic Opportunity before city commissioners give the final go-ahead in a second reading. And only then can city officials draw up a request for proposals that will go out to developers.

“We’re a couple of months away from getting the zoning change done. Then we’re six to seven months away from the Mosquito Board moving. And I’m not sure when the SPCA is moving out,” Scholl said, adding that it makes more sense to wait to see if a developer can be found to develop the entire property instead of working piecemeal.

Scholl said city engineers are currently working on a design for a new homeless shelter that will be used if a developer cannot be found. Since the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, the current operator of KOTS, was unable to proceed with its plan to build a new shelter because it could not secure bank financing, the city is on its own to meet the legal requirement to move KOTS. Calling the KOTS move “the alligator closest to the boat,” Scholl said the city will meet its legal obligation but the timeline is unclear. In the meantime, Scholl said he hopes the Sunset Marina condo owners, who brought the original shelter lawsuit against the city, will continue to be patient. Another person who will have to wait is Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey. KOTS is currently located next to the Stock Island sheriff’s department building and Ramsey has been vocal about wanting the city, not his officers, to police the shelter and its residents.

“I think so,” Scholl said about the odds of Ramsey continuing to be patient. “I see the Sheriff pretty frequently and he hasn’t given me any ultimatum.”

But at least one city commissioner is chaffing at the delays over moving KOTS and developing the College Road property into affordable housing. Commissioner Sam Kaufman complained at the June 6 commission meeting that he had received conflicting reports from city staff on the status of the project. One city staffer told him work had begun on a Request for Proposals for the project, while another said there was no RPF at the moment.

“It seemed there was an inconsistency there that concerned me,” Kaufman said. “I don’t see that progress is being made and that city staff doesn’t really have thorough communication about all these issues.”

Scholl responded that work was progressing, albeit slowly. And once the rezoning is approved at the local and state level, negotiations with potential developers may take a considerable amount of time, as tax credits, grants and other sources of funding for the project have to be researched and hammered out.

“None of this is easy when we get down to trying to do the detailed staff work,” Scholl told Kaufman. “But we haven’t ever stopped on affordable housing and we continue to push forward on affordable housing.”