Village officials – both current and former – pushed back at a community meeting against vocal critics who claim a non-binding plan intended to serve as a North Star for the future of Key Biscayne is really a blueprint for overdevelopment.
The man on the hot seat Tuesday night was Building, Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Gauger. He moved around like a prize fighter, defending the Strategic Vision Plan, taking the crowd’s punches without flinching as people shouted over each other or interrupted.
“The main commercial district was never ever, ever, ever intended to be showing any residential development,” said Gauger, trying to convince critics the Vision Plan was not some game of Three-card Monte.
The plan goes in front of the Village Council May 9 after what seemed a herculean effort. The document was 4 1/2 years in the making with 32 board meetings, six community meetings, 10 community workshops, a website dedicated to the Vision Plan and 700 surveys.
If one took a drink of whiskey every time the word density was mentioned Tuesday night, then alcohol poisoning might have ensued.
“So this is no endorsement for an increase in square footage or density,” Gauger said at one point.
Council Member Brett Moss said the same thing: “We don’t want more density.”
For critics, they might have as well been talking into a black hole.
The battle lines seemed to be drawn long before the question-and-answer session, during the recent and vicious mayoral election where critics of the plan were almost certain to also be supporters of former mayoral candidate Fausto Gomez.
Gomez was out of the country. It didn’t matter. He had his avatars who feared that Key Biscayne could become another Brickell or Manhattan.
It’s not as unreasonable as it sounds. Key Biscayne is the most dense square mile in all of Florida and its population has grown from 12,000 in 2010 to pushing about 15,000 now, Village Manager Steve Williamson said.
The Vision Plan is aspirational, and as such, sets forth proposals of what could be, nothing more. To execute many of these changes would require referendums, proposals and action by the Village Council.
It offers hypotheticals, such as housing for the elderly on the site of the L’Esplanade Mall or townhomes on Fernwood Drive.
“That does open the door and that is for more density,” said former Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay, a Gomez supporter.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Gauger said. “Page 1 (of the Vision Plan) says no more density. I’m not going to address it anymore.”
Peña Lindsay wouldn’t relent: “Jeremy, you say something on Page 1 and then say something different on Page 57. That’s the problem.”
Indeed, the drawing shows townhomes along Fernwood.
But Gauger said that if density is increased in one parcel, the Vision Plan says it must be offset somewhere else on the island, adding that the prior 2020 Strategic Vision Plan didn’t use fancy drawings. He blames some of the illustrations for some of the controversy since both old and new plans recommend redeveloping the commercial district.
“Nothing is as provocative as drawing of what something could be,” Gaugers said.
This drew the ire of Betty Sime Conroy, one of the original council members when the Village incorporated and also a Gomez supporter. Last month, she held her own rump “educational workshop” at Village Hall, calling citizens to it with an email blast entitled, “Call to Action. Preserve our Island.”
Conroy told Gauger on Tuesday night, “To me, that’s not my vision. I don’t want extra density.”
After the meeting when asked if she had changed her mind at all, Sime Conroy answered in the negative. “I think it’s a long way from what people really want,” she said.
Luis de la Cruz, another former council member who was on the Vision Board, said the panel wanted change but without increasing population.
“We were really clear at all times that we did not want more people,” he said. “So that means no more density.”
Still, the distrust was thick Tuesday night.
Former Mayor Mike Davey – who supported Mayor Joe Rasco in the last election – chastised critics for personally attacking Vision Board members and others who supported the plan during the last election.
“These are your friends and neighbors,” began Davey, referencing the contentious mayoral campaign. “So when people accuse them of being in developers’ pockets, that’s ridiculous.”
Resident Ceci Sanchez, another Gomez supporter, said the nearly complete renovations at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church are not in the spirit of the island.
“St. Agnes caught us by surprise. This is what Key Biscayne allows by code and this is what the Vision Plan is advising is our future?” she said.
Gauger stepped up the plate. He said the Vision Plan aims to change the zoning code so that any developments are aligned with the aesthetic of the island.
“I’ve heard it on a lot of different fronts that people don’t like the current zoning code, or what the current code produces,” he said.
“The Vision Plan document says redo your zoning code.”
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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV. You can reach him at [email protected]