Key West officials say they are not completely sold on a state bureaucrat's opinion that prospective developers of Peary Court need not make 30 percent of their housing units affordable.
Those opinions were fielded in front of about 35 residents who attended a community meeting Wednesday night on the pending sale of the former military housing tract. They posed questions about the property as Key West Planning Director Don Craig, City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley and other officials supplied what answers they could.
"Our position has been that the 30 percent does apply," said Assistant City Attorney Larry Erskine. "We haven't had a chance to study what we have, except briefly. I saw nothing there that would change my mind."
The affordable housing component of Key West's Master Plan is a major sticking point as the Navy and its private partner, multinational management corporation Balfour Beatty, work on finalizing sale of the once-public land and buildings to a contracted buyer, White Street Partners LLC.
City commissioners will meet May 29 for a special meeting and decide whether the city should enter into a development agreement with the Navy and its partners as well as the potential new buyers. At issue are 160 housing units that once were home exclusively to military personnel and were later offered for rent to civilians as well. Because of its military designation, the property has been off the tax roles and not subject to normal city zoning standards.
J. Thomas Beck, director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's Division of Community Development, communicated the state's findings in a May 14 letter to Craig that "because the 160 units at Peary Court are not new, and those units existed before the effective date of (the city policy) ... provisions regarding affordable housing do not apply to the existing 160 units at Peary Court. Therefore, the Department has reconsidered its November 14 ... letter to you, and is of the opinion that the existing 160 units at Peary Court are not subject to the 30% affordable set-aside."
Bringing 160 and more housing units into the city without the 30 percent rule rankles advocates for affordable housing.
They maintain that becaise the Peary Court units are commonly considered affordable now, the city will be losing what amounts to affordable housing stock. The problem is exacerbated, notes Mark Songer, president of the advocacy group Last Stand, because Key West is already set to lose a large amount of affordable housing units secured under the policy in question. Existing rules say that the affordability requirement expires over time, and many units in the city once legally designated affordable soon will revert to market rates.
The White Street group has asked to become part of the discussion and has pledged meetings with community members, indicating that even if Balfour Beatty, the Navy and the city cannot come to terms on the matter, negotiation on their part is possible.
They are prepared to offer 22 affordable units out of the existing Peary Court housing as affordable, in exchange for building 22 new market-rate units around a new pool in an area where a former credit union building stands.
Many of the questions asked at Wednesday's forum have already been answered, such as why the city was not offered the property for its own uses, or one that best suits the public's needs.
Weekley said in response that, for one thing, the federal policy mandating use for localities does not apply, due to an act of Congress, to the Peary Court property and others like it across the nation. In addition, he said, with an asking price in the vicinity of $30 million, there is no way the city could have afforded an outright purchase.
Peary Court was to be discussed at Tuesday night's commission meeting but it was pulled from the agenda, in part because of time considerations and in part because of the new developments with the state.
"We have not had an opportunity as staff to review that, to understand it," Craig said. "That is one of the reasons we asked for a delay."
Some attendees asked how much leeway the city would have in terms of deciding what White Street Partners -- presuming the sale goes through -- may do with the property, such as whether units will be offered for rent or sold as condominiums.
"We don't know right now," Craig said. "The city has very little opportunity to regulate the form of ownership, be it condominiums, partnership, single individual."
Taxi driver Carl Mott asked if the wall around the property can be taken down.
"We don't need another gated community in Key West," he said.
Officials said they are not certain at this point, that it's too early to determine an answer. But they also noted that some people, particularly those who live right near Peary Court, have expressed a desire for the walls to stay.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mayor Craig Cates produced a copy of a city resolution from 1992 in which commissioners agreed to cede Peary Court to Navy use, specifically with the understanding that its purpose was to provide affordable housing for military personnel.
Weekley made mention of the resolution during the meeting, but said he was not certain how it applied to the current situation.
One of the White Street group's partners, developer Jim Landers, was present at the meeting but did not address the crowd. He did speak individually with some community members afterward, however.
"From the onset, we have committed ourselves to a completely transparent process with the community," Landers said. "We are actively working with residents to understand their unique concerns. There is a certain power of cooperation that we hope to achieve."