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Troubles at four large condominiums were the top story of 2023 in Key Biscayne, in a year that saw state and local lawmakers push for tougher regulations. The ranking by the Key Biscayne Independent’s editorial staff is based on the stories impact, persistence, and analytic data. 

The top item: an arrest of a former property manager at EmeraldBay, Maria Rodriguez, who is awaiting trial on charges she stole owner’s maintenance fees. There were also multiple lawsuits involving EmeraldBay, while the Village continued oversight of the luxury building’s recertification process. Elsewhere in Key Colony, a phishing scam diverted a $100,000 payment made at the Botanica condo. The money was later recovered, but there was a management shakeup at the building.

There was also turmoil at Casa Del Mar, with mass board resignations and staff departures in the wake of fire safety compliance projects. And late in the year, a lawsuit claimed the Ocean Club Community Association wasn’t entitled to more than $1 million in federal COVID-19 PPP loans. 

At a packed town meeting, there were promises of more condo regulation. The Miami-Dade County Commission added new condo disclosure rules this month. And Rep. Vicki Lopez is introducing legislation to further regulate condos and HOAs, a major topic for the Florida Legislature.

Here are the other top stories in 2023:

#2 – LOLITA DIES
Known also by the name Tokitae, the orca captured from the Pacific Ocean decades ago spent the rest of her life swimming in circles and entertaining crowds at the Miami Seaquarium. As public sensibilities changed and protesters demanded her freedom, the park’s new owners and Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava came up with a plan to release her to a sea pen in Washington state. But she died Aug. 18 from multiple chronic conditions. Her plight drew international news coverage and remains potent as the industry confronts demands for change. 

#3 – FRAGILE FLORIDA
Record hot water baked coral reefs to death in the waters around South Florida, with ocean temperatures scientists had never seen before. On land, there was a record stretch of miserably hot weather. Miami Dade County considered a new heat ordinance, but business groups opposed the measure, which has been tabled until March. Later in the year, powerful storms ripped up Key Biscayne beaches. On the plus side, a feared sargassum blob never materialized

#4 – KB BUDGET
In a year where the entire nation was reeling from inflation, Key Biscayne was full steam ahead on an ambitious capital program, as the Council voted 6-0 for a record $41 million budget. Soaring home values meant a property tax increase of 9% for non-homesteaded owners, and 3% for those whose homes get the tax break. 

Even though the island has the lowest tax rate in the county, an anti-tax group pressed hard for cuts, but failed to make an impact. One lingering issue: as-yet unsettled labor contracts with public safety workers as inflation in South Florida stubbornly remains higher than the national average. The police union rejected a proposed deal, and firefighters have yet to vote on their package

#5 -RACISM ALLEGED AT MAST ACADEMY

It wasn’t the first time that black students complained about racism at prestigious MAST Academy, but complaints filed by three students in June were officially lodged with the Miami-Dade School District. One student said she was repeatedly called the “N-word” by students and a teacher made derogatory comments.  The teacher later resigned

#6 – LOBBYIST FIRED
Key Biscayne fired its lobbyist after the disclosure in October that he used the island’s name and that of its manager — without authorization — in seeking support for $3 million in a state appropriations bill. The project? A grant to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for an environmental sensor program the Village didn’t ask for or need. The bill also blindsided Key Biscayne’s representative in the state house, Vicki Lopez. The lobbyist, Jonathan Kilman, said the submissions were an error and denied any wrongdoing.

#7 – CRIME: PITA POCKETS
Police said a man with an AK47 threatened a local falafel shop owner, then led officers on a wild police chase, but not before colliding with a Key Biscayne officer’s car. Even though he was out on probation for a previous offense,  Ashanti Earp was released shortly after his arrest. The year 2023 continued to be tough for the Pita Pockets owner. A gas leak officials said came from his shop caused an evacuation and snarled traffic days before Christmas. 

#8 – CHURCH CHANGES

There were big changes in two different congregations. St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church consecrated a campus makeover funded with $18 million in donations. Miami’s  archbishop officiated at the September opening. The structure drew criticism from some residents for its size, and the island is adjusting to new traffic patterns as it plans improvements for Harbor Drive.

Next door, at Crossbridge Church, the congregation voted to leave the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, its home for five decades. The issue? Allowing female pastors, elders, and deacons, prohibited by prior denomination’s rules.  Affiliation with a different Presbyterian denomination could come in the Spring. 

#9 – SCOOTERS & E-BIKES
Fearing a fatality is a matter of time, the Village imposed a ban on motorized scooters and e-bikes in parks in February, but declined to ban the devices elsewhere. A bill to give local governments more regulatory options died in the state Legislature. One possible solution is enforcement with the assistance of County regulators, but nothing had been filed by year’s end. Opposition to tougher laws also comes from some parents, who see responsible use of the devices as plus for getting around town. Meanwhile, injuries continued to mount.

#10 – MESSI MANIA
Soccer was already super popular in Key Biscayne before Lionel Messi came to Inter Miami in June — just look at the crowded Village Green. But the game’s popularity surged across the U.S. like never before after his arrival boosted ticket sales and TV viewership. Messi didn’t return to the island when picking a South Florida home, but Key Biscayne has its own favorite son playing on the team — MAST Academy  graduate Benjamin Cremaschi. 

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