Judge Gives Keys Resort Residents Month to Leave
A circuit court judge ruled Thursday (Dec. 10) that the Key Largo Ocean Resort RV park must shut down by Jan. 15, giving residents there about a month to find new homes.
Judge Luis Garcia said he had toured the park at mile marker 94.8 in the Florida Keys two days earlier and cited public safety as his primary reason for ordering it closed, according to keysnet.com. He said a high number of building code and safety violations were apparent on the 22-acre oceanfront property, including propane tanks installed dangerously close to homes, derelict boats and cars that would hamper access by fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, and poor construction materials and methods that Garcia compared to “a child’s tree house.”
Chief Assistant Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger said property owners and residents of the resort have had ample warnings and time to make corrections.
“There’s no dispute that everyone has been informed of the code violations,” he said. “From the county’s perspective it’s very clear. We’ve been very patient, some would say even too patient. The easiest way is to shut it down and that is what we are asking for today.”
On Dec. 3, Shillinger filed for an injunction to shut down the park, citing fire safety concerns. The county says the park is a collection of fire code violations and needs to be shut down immediately. Garcia’s ruling Thursday was in response to that request.
Attorney John Jabro, representing some park residents opposed to closing the park, countered that the property has undergone recent improvements.
“The project is on track. It is markedly more safe than it has been,” Jabro said, adding that displaced residents would have difficulty finding their next home. “[The Keys] is not the place to find affordable housing. It is not necessary to close the park.”
But Garcia said he could not allow people to keep living in the park after what he saw when he toured the property.
“On Tuesday I visited your property and I saw residents cleaning things up,” he said. “I saw seniors enjoying a nice breeze and sitting outside. Some were riding bicycles, enjoying their retirement. But I also saw building violations. A fire at Key Largo Ocean Resort would quickly become uncontrollable.” Garcia then handed down his ruling.
“It weighs on me to have to displace so many permanent residents,” Garcia said. “But I have decided to close Key Largo Ocean Resort. The resort must be closed and all residents out by Jan. 15, 2010, by midnight.”
One property owner who asked not to be identified said her sister lives at KLOR and will have difficulty finding a new place on such short notice.
“We’re disappointed, but at the same time we knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” she said. “But that is not a lot of time to find a new place. Rentals in the Keys are so high and I’ve been looking around at property to buy and you can’t even find a shack for less than $200,000.”
Jabro’s clients, about 10 residents, are fighting the park’s board of directors and plans for redevelopment that would bring the property into compliance with county code. But the plan calls for new modular homes, meaning homeowners who cannot afford to rebuild on their lots will have to leave.
The redevelopment plan, approved by the park’s elected board in 2005, has been at the heart of several legal battles waged all the way to the state Supreme Court. Courts continue to rule in favor of the board of director’s. But now redevelopment is being held up by money problems, said Donald Craig, president of the Craig Company, a Key West planning and design firm hired by the board.
Craig testified Monday (Dec. 7) that Community Bank originally agreed to lend the park owners $5 million to hire a company to handle the project, but now the bank wants $2.3 million from the board in guarantees, based on $1.8 million in interest and 10 percent of the hard cost of building the new development. The development contract was recently awarded to Fountain Engineering for $5.4 million.
Shillinger said he did not want to be responsible for anything that happened while the directors resolve their financial issues.
Frank Greenman, an attorney representing Ocean Resort’s board of directors, said he wasn’t surprised by Garcia’s decision.
“It’s sad, but it was inevitable,” Greenman said.
Shillinger said he would contact the county Land Authority about what can be done to help people with nowhere to go find affordable housing.
“This was a difficult decision for Judge Garcia and the residents and for everyone involved, but unfortunately, it had to be done,” Shillinger said.