Height increase for Stock Island housing project approved by voters



Despite grumblings from some Key West residents, a proposal to increase building height limits for a proposed affordable housing development on Stock Island passed in a special referendum election on Tuesday, March 13.

Voting was light in the one-issue special election but the measure to increase the 25-foot height limit to 40 feet on a 2.62-acre, city-owned parcel on College Road passed by a 58-42 percent margin, 1,383 votes to 986. The move will allow city officials to begin looking for a developer to build an affordable workforce housing development that, if the entire parcel is used, can hold an estimated 104 apartment units.

Mayor Craig Cates, who had pushed hard for the project, was happy with the results but “disappointed” in the voter turnout. Only 2,369 Key West voters cast a ballot, approximately 16 percent of the total registered voter list.

“You’d think more people would be concerned about this issue in the Keys,” Cates said.

Some voters, including Commissioner Margaret Romero, had complained that there is no development plan yet for the College Road project but voters were being asked to approve a permanent height increase. And there is one more thorny issue that needs to be solved before the city can put out a request for proposals to developers. Commissioners in 2015 voted to use a portion of the parcel for a new homeless shelter. But the housing destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in Monroe County is causing them to rethink that vote, making housing a priority over a shelter.

However, with no city-owned property available, city officials have asked Monroe County Commissioners to allow them to take over an existing senior citizen housing project, Bayshore Manor, to use as a new shelter, moving the Bayshore residents to a newly-constructed senior assisted living facility in Key West. County Commissioners firmly rejected the proposal last month, leaving the homeless shelter location up in the air.

Mayor Cates said that the issue needs to be solved before an RFP for the College Road property can go out to developers. If the shelter has nowhere else to go other than College Road, it will reduce the number of potential workforce units and possibly discourage some developers from responding to the RFP, he said.

“We’re going to have to press [county commissioners] to do something,” Cates said. “If the county would say, ‘we’ll move forward with you, we may not have a location right now,’ then we can go for all 104 units.”

In other election news, the burgeoning race for Key West Mayor, which grew to 12 candidates last week, just lost one aspirant. Mark Songer, president of Last Stand, the local environmental group dedicated to protecting and preserving the quality of life in the Florida Keys, announced to gasps at the March 12 Florida Keys Democrats meeting that he was pulling out of the race. He said he will be supporting Monroe County Planning Commissioner and former Key West City Commissioner Teri Johnston, who announced her candidacy for mayor last week.

Songer, well known for his measured and educative remarks at many city commission meetings where city growth and planning issues are raised, said he had been monitoring the growing list of mayoral candidates and saw that several have similar priorities for budget transparency, recycling and adhering to the comprehensive plan to manage the city’s growth.

“I am very concerned that supporters of my campaign will be diluting their votes to the advantage of people who don’t share the vision of the candidates who are here in the room,” Songer said, adding, “I would ask anyone who is interested in my efforts to pay very close attention to the issues that [Johnston] discusses and the policies that would lead us to a sustainable future in the city of Key West.”

Johnston thanked Songer and said it “was an honor” to have a campaign platform aligned with his.

“I think anyone in Key West that is familiar with Last Stand knows what a respectful organization it is and how very, very concerned and dedicated they are to watching over our growth system in times when a lot of people are attacking it,” she said.