If you can get a copy of today’s Key West Citizen (keysnews.com), read Tim O’Hara’s front-page “City to weigh in on Wisteria Island” piece, which is about the Bernstein and Walsh families’ effort to turn the island into a mini-Sunset Key, which the Walsh family developed as a super-high-end resort a number of years ago. The article says it will be redevelopment, even though the island has never been developed. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it has been my impression that the sometimes easier rules for redevelopment only apply to developed property.
Currently, 21-acre Wisteria Island lies in Monroe County; the City of Key West has nothing to do with it. Currently, the island is zoned for two homes on 10 acres each. O’Hara’s article says what the Wash’s and Bernsteins want the County to do, with the City’s concurrence, is let them build 35 homes, 35 vacational [transient] rental units, docks that can house 35 boats, and 35,000 square feet of shops on the island. Because of its close proximity to Key West, about half a mile, and its considerably greater distance from County fire and law enforcement services, the burden of looking out for the island probably would fall on the City, even though though the island would remain in the County.
This looks to me like an attempt to circumvent the Bersteins and Walshes’ unsuccesful attempt in 2007 to get the City of Key West to annex Wisteria Island into the city. It also looks to me like an attempt to circumvent the referrendum that passed that same year, requring Key West voter referrendum approval of the annexation/purchase of land by the city. In that suspicious vein are these excerpts from the “A friendlier proposal for Wisteria Island” Editorial, on page 4A of today’s Citizen.
The island, in addition to becoming a home to squatters, has literally become a dumping ground. The near-shore waters and beaches are strewn with derelict vessels, and offshore, live-aboard boaters have for years sunk crude mooring devices that can damage the bay bottom below.
One wonders why an owner of an island in the Keys would allow it to fall into such a deteriorating state. However, in fairness, the island’s owners have posted “no trespassing” signns. Unfortunately, to some, those are simply welcoming signs . . .
As with any development in its infancy, many questions are unanswered and many questions are yet to be asked.
On the one hand, a cleaner and safer harbor, a professionally managed mooring filed, and a moderately developed island could have a positive environmental and economic impact.
On the other hand, the owners could have cleaned up their private island and worked with federal, state and local enforemcnet to eliminate hazardous debris and vessels without a development plan.
This leaves us wondering if the island and the surrounding waters were allowed to deterioate in order to create a selling platform for Sunset Key, Part Deux.’
One wonders indeed. The Bernsteins are well-connected and well-heeled. They could have gotten the Sheriff of Monroe County to round up the squatters, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to round up the boaters damaging the sea bottom, and impounded their boats and possessions and put them all in the pokey. The Bernsteins could have hired a crew of day laborers armed with a barge and garbage bags and cans to clean up the island. That’s what I would have done, if I were the Bernsteins and that was my island.
Maybe it will help some people be able to answer the Editorial’s questions and wondering, if I tell what The Citizen knows but did not come out and say in the Editorial. Maybe it would help if I say underneath all of this is Critical Concern, Inc., the business nome de plume of former county attorney Jim Hendrick, who represents the Bersteins. Maybe it would help if I say it is entirely in keeping with the way Jim’s clever mind works, for him to have told the Bernsteins to leave Wisteria island alone, let it rot, to create a selling platform for developing it, while calling it redevelopment. A redevelopment that would let them get the City of Key West’s amenities without being in the city.
Jim has many friends, some very powerful, who will take high offense over what I just wrote. Tough shit. I played countless games of chess with Jim. I ate lots of lunches with him and his friends. I ate dinners in his home. I listened to everything he said. I read everything written about him in the newspapers. I followed his trial and conviction in federal court and the appeal and the probation-resentencing hearing as if he was my own brother.
Jim is perfectly capable of and would have no moral reservations against advising the Bernsteins and the Washes to let Wisteria Island rot, to lure the County and the City into viewing the Bernsteins and Walshes as white knights. What the Bernsteins and Walshes are are shrewd developers, and what Jim Hendrick is is the shrewdest lawyer the Keys have ever seen or likely ever will see.
In early 2009, as I prepared to make my way to a county commission meeting at the Harvey Government Center in Key West, to speak out against what I viewed as a terrible proposal for the development of Safe Harbor Marina on Stock Island, a proposal I knew Jim Hendrick swam underneath although his fin was not visible above the surface, I received an email from Jim telling me to come over to his office and play chess with him, instead of sitting in a boring county commission meeting. Jim and I never played chess in the morning; he didn’t want me at that meeting.
When I got my three minutes to speak during citizen comments, I told the county commissioners I was speaking to them as a lawyer, about lawyers. I said this is how it is with lawyers. They have a fiduciary duty to their clients to screw the county in favor of their clients. I said if lawyers don’t do this for their clients, then it’s malpractice. I said lawyers never tell you everything they have up their sleeves. They always hold something in reserve, to use on you the next time they come before you representing their clients. Never trust a lawyer to tell you everything, I told the commissioners.
I do truly hope the Monroe County Commission and the Key West City Commission, on which Mayor Craig Cates sits and casts one vote, will view this Wisteria Island development proposal as the Trojan Horse it is. The Bersteins and the Walches and Jim Henrick are in this for themselves. They will try to get everything they can out of the County and the City. Jim’s fee may well be one of those 35 homes the Bernsteins and Walches want to build on Wisteria Island. They do not care what happens to the County and the City. All they care about is making money. I wish it were not so, but res ipsa loquitur, their prior actions prove it is so.
Here’s what you can do, Monroe County, to clean up Wisteria Island. Report the island and the Bernsteins who own it to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the US Department of Fish & Wildlife. Lean on DEP and F & W to get Wisteria Island and its nearby waters and sea bottom cleaned up. Make the Bernsteins be good stewards, even it it takes arresting and putting them in the pokey, thus on the front page of The Citzen and perhaps in many newspapers and TV news shows in the United States, to get their attention.