Re: IRL in the News: Herald: Closed bridge opens Boot Key to future as nature preserve

Jan 10, 2009 Issues: Education

Closed bridge opens Boot Key to future as nature preserve

''Welcome to Fantasy Island,'' says Morning Mix producer Richard Silva as the boat reaches the shore of 1,100-acre Boot Key, off Marathon in the Florida Keys.
The island is eerie, like something out of The Twilight Zone: dead cars left on the lone road, a cannon next to an old boat called Run Amuck, rusted, empty trailers, overturned lobster traps, a 300-foot communications tower and a rickety radio station swarmed by 20 abandoned cats.

But due to another deteriorating structure, Boot Key the junkyard could become Boot Key the nature preserve.

The Boot Key drawbridge, built in 1960, was closed a year ago for safety reasons by the Florida Department of Transportation, leaving the three private landowners with no vehicle access and the city of Marathon with a legal obligation to compensate them for the loss.

Some city officials and environmentalists hope the city's ''bridge to nowhere'' headache -- which includes a lawsuit filed against the city last week by one landowner -- could ultimately become a green blessing.

Marathon Vice Mayor Don Vasil said he would like the city to buy Boot Key, with an assist from outside funding sources, then clean it up and ``leave it as an environmentally sensitive area in perpetuity.''

The island boasts wetlands, mangroves, salt ponds and native hardwood hammocks. Kayakers, hikers and bird-watchers are regular visitors.

The island also is a haven for hawks before they journey 90 miles or more to Cuba, South America and other tropical destinations. In 1987, a rare Key West quail dove was spotted on the island.

If made into a preserve, Boot Key would join the area's other ecotourist attractions: the Dolphins Research Center, Pigeon Key, the Turtle Hospital and Crane Point Hammock nature reserve.

Vasil said the combination could make Marathon a first-class, eco-educational destination. He noted that the city has been in search of a better identity than the current catchphrase, ``The Heart of the Florida Keys.''

But the city first must deal with the three landowners:

• Fort Lauderdale's Barry Yampol controls the vast majority of the island -- 1,017 acres -- under the ownership of two corporations. None of the land is developed, although 27 scattered acres are potentially developable.

• Keys Radio Group owner Joe Nascone owns just under 10 acres, but his is the most valuable because his land is mixed-use and already has commercial development with the radio station.

• Marathon Wireless Communications Inc. owns 1.68 acres with a communications tower.

Last April, the city of Marathon hired Waronker & Rosen Inc. to appraise the island. The company valued the island at $3.4 million with bridge access and $1.47 million without it.

Nascone's acreage lost the most value without bridge access, dropping from $2.42 million to $605,000.

After the appraisal, the City Council voted to buy the island for $3.4 million and pay for removal of the steel bridge that is the entrance to busy Boot Key Harbor.

It would have cost $8.7 million or more to repair or replace the bridge that serves only the three private landowners on an island with no permanent residents and little potential for future development.

Last month, to try to raise money to buy the island, the city hosted a tour of the island for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, state Rep. Ron Saunders and others.

Boot Key is on the priority list for Florida Forever, a state land-buying program. But funds would have to be available and appropriated.

Meanwhile, Nascone said his patience has run out after 13 months with no bridge access. He said he sued the city because there has been no progress to buy his land. Without a bridge, he said, the radio stations are harder to run, plus he's lost business from many of the 25 commercial fishermen who rented dock space.

Real estate broker Brian Schmitt, who represents property owner Yampol, said the $500,000 appraised value of the land was too low.

''I've been in this business 30 years and I can tell you 1,000 acres in the Keys is worth more than the appraisal,'' Schmitt said.

Over the years, the city has considered development plans for the island, Schmitt said. One currently under consideration includes a handful of single-family homes along the ocean.

''We're waiting for the city to get back on the development proposal and to see whether they want to enter substantial negotiations to buy the land at fair market value,'' Schmitt said. ``A preserve would be a great use of the property. One thousand acres of accessible island for sale doesn't exist anywhere else in the Keys.''