Key West Wrangle

Sides square off over Christmas Tree Island

By 2003, Key West had become an island of haves and have-nots. While bums filled the city's beaches and the island, Buffett's Duval Street eatery, Margaritaville, sold $34.95 flip-flops to tourists. City leaders made another try at cleaning up the place by proposing a measure to ship the homeless to Miami. "Here we are advertising as a relaxed, laid-back scene, a place where you can leave your troubles and stress behind,'' then-Mayor Jimmy Weekley told the New York Times, "and you get here and there are all these people on the street, and it puts your stress level up again.''

The only restaurant on Sunset Key is Latitudes. The beach bar/upscale hotel-restaurant is loosely named after Jimmy Buffett's song "Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude." Attire is "country club casual," and the menu is Floribbean themed — with a $32 pappardelle di mare entrée and a $39 Florida lobster platter. There's a stunning view. From the outdoor tables you can gaze at the sunset and nearby Christmas Tree Island at the same time.

The restaurant is arguably the most exclusive eatery in all of Key West — you need a boat just to get there — so on May 10, 2007, when three members of the Monroe County Commission were invited there for dinner, they were probably thrilled. Their host was Sunset Key developer Michael Walsh, who had also worked on scads of other luxury properties around Florida.

This summer the owners of Christmas Tree Island posted No Trespassing signs on the property to keep locals away
Michael Torbisco
This summer the owners of Christmas Tree Island posted No Trespassing signs on the property to keep locals away
Jimmy Buffett popularized the beach bum lifestyle in Key West
AP Wide World
Jimmy Buffett popularized the beach bum lifestyle in Key West

The guest list was a who's who of Key West: city Commissioners Clayton Lopez, Danny Kolhage, and Harry Bethel; Police Chief Bill Mauldin; and local lawyer/lobbyist Bob Dean. The dinner was reportedly a farewell soiree for Bethel, who was retiring from the commission after 20 years of public service.

But there was an underlying flavor of unseemliness. Florida law prohibits two or more members of the same commission from gathering to talk about city business without advertising a meeting and inviting the public. And host Walsh had recently partnered with Roger Bernstein, a Coral Gables lawyer, to develop Christmas Tree Island.

Just nine days earlier, on May 1, the city commission had voted 5-2 without much fanfare to annex Christmas Tree Island. The property's owner, Bernstein, had proposed the annexation. Bethel, Kolhage, and Lopez had been the critical votes. A second hearing was needed to make it official.

Here's where the story gets a little bureaucratic and convoluted, as most shady government deals do. In order to develop his isle, Bernstein and his partners — including Walsh — needed the land to be part of the city of Key West and not part of unincorporated Monroe County. The county's zoning laws allow for only two homes to be built on the island. Under Key West zoning laws, up to 168 units could be constructed there. Christmas Tree could become another Sunset Key, Bernstein and the developers had told the commission.

The numbers seduced some of the officials. By annexing the property, the city hoped to garner tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue. Commissioner Bethel told the Miami Herald: "You can leave a bunch of homeless people camping out there now, or you can develop and gain revenue from it. It's simple economics as far as I'm concerned.''

The dinner apparently went off without a hitch. Bethel and Kolhage didn't return calls or e-mails seeking comment for this story. Lopez claims he couldn't remember what he ate. He contends the commissioners didn't discuss county business or the annexation of Christmas Tree Island. "We did talk about a fire that had taken place out there recently as the result of some homeless," Lopez says.

Five days after the Latitudes fiesta, Key West commissioners took up a second and final vote on annexation of Christmas Tree Island. Though Mayor Morgan McPherson (who had voted for the annexation) and Commissioner Mark Rossi (who had voted against it) were not present, Bethel and Kolhage wanted to vote on the matter right away. But the others, including Lopez, prevailed and the vote was delayed until July.

Before another meeting could be held, word of the Sunset Key dinner spread through town; someone, possibly a restaurant worker, another diner, or a person at the dinner, began to sing like a bird. Calls were made to local newspaper reporters, who sputtered in outrage.

"If you're wondering what this is all about," fumes Dennis Reeves Cooper, editor of the scrappy Key West the Newspaper, "here is the simple explanation: It's about helping a small group of already-rich developers make a few more million dollars."

Soon after Cooper and others published stories about the dinner, resident Erin Herwig filed a state ethics commission complaint against Bethel and Kolhage. Lopez, she believed, had been duped into going. "The lame excuse that the party was for the purpose of recognizing the services of one of the commissioners who wouldn't be leaving public service for another five months just doesn't wash," she wrote.

The backlash from the dinner was swift. Bernstein (who wasn't at the dinner) and Walsh withdrew the annexation request at the July meeting. "Basically we're reassessing the situation," Bernstein told the Key West Citizen. He refused to talk about the island's future with New Times, saying he is a "private person" who doesn't want his Miami neighbors to know his business.

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