Bud Cornell slumps into a chair under a thatched
"We get hit from all ends here," says Cornell, an affable 60-year-old with white hair and a mustache. "That's what happens when you're a small, family-run business."
It's not easy keeping up a 65-year-old business, but for the past 15 years, Cornell and his partner Robert Cummings have put their hearts into Sunset Cove, the oldest motel in Key Largo. The oversize jungle animal sculptures dotting the property have been mainstays for years, and the front office was once the Key Largo Roller Rink. Though many visitors now book rooms online, a retro '50s sign still brings in drivers off the main drag. It's quintessential, quirky Key Largo — the way it's always been.
So Cornell was shocked when the Florida Department of Transportation suddenly showed up at his door with a hell of a claim: Part of his resort, including the historic sign, was actually on state-owned land. As soon as possible, FDOT insisted, he must remove the sign and begin paying the state thousands of dollars in rent.
"That sign has been there since dirt," Cornell says, pointing to the red-and-yellow structure towering 20 feet above U.S. 1, locally known as Overseas Highway. "And we've been maintaining the front of this place forever. We don't want to take any of that down. It's just not right."
Cornell soon learned he wasn't alone. Up and down the highway, neighboring business owners have received the same demands from the state. Now they're fighting back. In June, seven Key Largo businesses filed a lawsuit against FDOT and Monroe County, arguing the state's property grab is illegal and the county is complicit. The owners say the fight isn't just about protecting their land — it's about saving the Keys' funky character from the state's grip.
"All we want is to be left in peace, just as we and our predecessors were for almost 100 years," says Tanya Cleary, whose family has been in the area since the '60s. "They're just trying to extract money from us. This is a shakedown."
The roots of this fight date to when Miami was just a young settlement town and Henry Flagler had a far-flung dream. In the late 1800s, the oil tycoon declared that boats wouldn't do and that the islands off South Florida needed a railway.
By 1905, construction was underway, and in 1908, the Florida East Coast Railway was extended from Homestead to Marathon, spawning a boomtown in the Middle Keys. Cuban produce landed on the islands' shores and was loaded onto train cars and sent north to the mainland. Settlers began trickling in to make their homes alongside the tracks, including in what is now Key Largo. In 1912, an 82-year-old Flagler triumphantly rode from Homestead to Key West on a train. The Overseas Railroad officially spanned the entire east coast of Florida, from Jacksonville to Key West.
But in 1935, 22 years after Flagler's death, Mother Nature destroyed his dream. On Labor Day, the fiercest hurricane in U.S. history raged over the islands, killing more than 400 people and damaging the rail lines beyond repair.
With cars increasingly common anyway, the state opted to replace the railroad with the Overseas Highway in 1938, with bridges and pavement connecting Homestead to the Keys. In the years that followed, business owners catering to weekend travelers and tourists built their properties on the narrow swath of land between the road and the water — with permits from Monroe County in hand.
"Even in the '60s, there wasn't much here," says Cornell, whose mom and aunt moved to South Florida from Ohio in the '50s. "You could roll a bowling ball down the highway and it wouldn't hit anything."
Cleary's Keys story dates to the early
In 1984, Tanya and Bill moved to Key Largo to work on the family's property and soon married. Since then, she's seen the area grow far beyond a backwater island — and as business expanded, she says, Monroe County permitted upgrades and construction along the highway. Al's Carpet added a parking lot and space for trucks in the '80s, for instance, and at Captain's Imports — located in a building now leased by Cleary — owner Leon Dermer set up bronze statues and fountains next to Overseas Highway. The land they used, in many cases, is the only patch of dirt between the water and the roadway.
"Customers have to park there; we have to put signs there," says Cleary, a petite, soft-spoken, 51-year-old blonde. "We're a narrow chain of islands. Almost all our businesses are along U.S. 1, and we don't have a choice."
For decades, that wasn't a problem. And then, in 2013, FDOT appeared from out of the blue. In letters and in-person visits, agents began insisting that business owners were on state land. FDOT's contention: A hundred years ago, when Flagler was building his railway, the 20 feet alongside it was planned as a state road. Though one was never built, the state still owned the land. Now all of those businesses would have to enter into leases with the state immediately.
From Mile Markers 107 to 98, the agency threatened to take away property and sue if owners didn't comply. FDOT told Dermer to remove his sculptures or he'd be subject to fines and property seizures; then agents stuck orange "illegal" stickers on his sculptures. When Dermer refused to move them, they told him he could be thrown in jail, Cleary says.
The crackdown didn't end at Key Largo. FDOT's enforcement hit businesses up and down Overseas Highway, as far south as Islamorada. Why the sudden land grab?
FDOT hasn't given a consistent answer. A spokesperson refused to discuss the situation with New Times because of the pending litigation; in articles on KeysNet.com last month, the agency suggested that recently completed road construction spurred the action. Residents have their own theories — mainly that the state saw a potential cash cow in the old road.
Either way, when FDOT sent Cleary a letter, she was incensed. She quickly hired Eddie Martinez, a professional surveyor, who found a loophole in the state's argument. As he read an old, frayed title that Cleary's ex-husband had tucked away, Martinez noticed that the 20-foot strip of land alongside the railway was dedicated to Monroe County in 1916 but that the county never officially accepted it. That same year, the railway began selling off and subdividing the land to other landowners. In 1938, Monroe County declared it had never "paved, grated, or improved the road" and that the land should be reverted back to its original owners. That would mean the landowners who'd received subdivided land from the railway — or so the Keys residents contend.
In June, Cleary and Cornell — along with five other plaintiffs, including local mainstays like the Pelican Motel, Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, and the Key Lime Sailing Club — filed a lawsuit. Their argument is simple: Cleary and her neighbors own that land. "That area has been continually used and occupied by the plaintiffs and their predecessors for decades," says their attorney, Suzanne Driscoll, a former FDOT lawyer.
Late last month, FDOT responded, arguing the historic deeds mean the land has always been the state's even if it never claimed it before. The county, meanwhile, has remained neutral (and also declined to speak with New Times about its role in permitting all of that construction over the years). No date has been set yet for the trial.
The fight has already cost Cleary and her neighbors dearly. They've spent some $100,000 on the lawsuit so far. For small businesses already under financial pressure, it's money that's hard to come by.
And it follows tough years on the heels of recession. At Sunset Cove, a new sewage system being installed next month is costing $75,000, plus the loss of one month of business. Cornell also learned recently that he owes rent to the Department of Environmental Protection for the land under his docks, including back payments.
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"We were the last to get on board with the lawsuit because we're saving every penny we've got," Cornell says. "But in the end, we felt strongly that this isn't right. We can't afford yet another expense."
The business owners have set up Facebook and GoFundMe pages to raise money to help pay for the lawsuit. For Cleary, the last two years have been especially challenging. Last August, her son died in a tragic boating accident that shook the Key Largo community. A year earlier, she lost her ex-husband Bill, the father of her two children, to a sudden illness.
But she says the stress of the lawsuit is worth it. She believes the fight is about more than her business: The future of the Keys' local character is at stake.
"Mom-and-pop shops are what make the Keys unique," she says. "We don't have big-box stores here. And we want to keep it that way."