Key West Wrangle

Sides square off over Christmas Tree Island

People were especially concerned about what would happen to the 100 or so live-aboard boaters who anchor off Christmas Tree Island. "That's the last bastion of affordable housing in Key West," Freeman says. "People just think it's ridiculous to build condos out there just so people from somewhere else can live in them a few weeks or months out of the year."

She eventually collected 400 signatures.

Even Ritson pounded the pavement. He used crutches and rode with a friend to a Publix supermarket on Roosevelt Avenue, where he hung around for four hours to collect a few dozen signatures. Then he sat outside the post office in a lawn chair on several hot days. "There was a disgust over the sneakiness of the commission," he says of the hundreds who signed.

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

By August, he and his friends had collected 2105 signatures, more than enough to put the referendum on this week's ballot. "I don't like dishonesty," he says. "People are allowed to be ignorant, but not greedy."

Indeed he believes greed has taken over his laid-back Valhalla. Key West is the most expensive city in the state; the average sale price of a home on the island in 2005 was a whopping $949,000.

Ritson chuckles when he thinks of how his referendum — if approved by voters — will derail future development in Key West. "It must really upset [the developers] knowing that this was all done by a one-legged man sitting here in his chair at home."

This summer a few dozen Key West do-gooders volunteered their boats and time to gather garbage from the island. A few weeks later, Walsh and Bernstein's people staked shiny new No Trespassing signs in the ground, and folks stopped sleeping there for fear of getting arrested. These days even the 100 boaters who anchor nearby don't venture ashore to cook out or play ball.

The island is returning to its wild state, overgrown with native scrub brush, crabs, and migrating birds. The Australian pines are all dead and gray, creating a ghostly forest amid the low-lying greenery. The paths that squatters once used have been overgrown by vines and bushes; it's nearly impossible to walk more than 10 feet into the island. Only a carved wooden statue that looks like a Polynesian tiki head remains on the shoreline.

A couple thousand feet away, on Simonton Beach in Key West, four homeless guys sit and stare at Christmas Tree Island. One of them, Lonnie Belk Helms Jr., is 47 years old, shirtless, and toothless, and hails from Daytona Beach. His face and torso are covered in yellow and blue chalk, probably because one of the younger vagrants was drawing pictures with the chalk on the floor of a nearby public bathroom and Lonnie rolled around in it.

Dave, a 49-year-old dressed in camouflage who looks like Edward James Olmos on a bad day, sits next to Lonnie on the beach. There's also Mike, a 26-year-old from St. Pete; and Denver, a 22-year-old from Kentucky. Denver, who has a thick, black beard, works nights at a local bar, dressing up like a pirate and standing at the door to lure in tourists. All are tattooed and smell of smokes, beer, sweat, and feet.

Each one has stayed on Christmas Tree Island at one point in his homeless career. Lonnie, the most talkative and obviously drunk of the four, says he partied out there a lot and once lost his flip-flops on the island. He also claims he tried to swim there a month or two ago but was stopped by a lawman pointing a shotgun at him. Lonnie is no stranger to the county jail; his most recent arrest came after he stole a six-pack of Coronas, some limes, and a bunch of bananas.

To develop the island, the men say, would be a sacrilege to the locals and to nature. "What's that little bird that lives over there, man?" Lonnie asks no one in particular.

"The osprey?" Denver replies.

"No, man, the little guy, who, ya know, the little dudes that run on the ground." Lonnie moves his index and middle fingers in a walking motion.

No one answers him. Everyone looks glumly at the island, now kissed by soft peach sunset hues.

"It's beautiful there," says Lonnie. "But they're going to take it away. Maybe not this year, but someday. It's all about the money."

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