The state is set to grant a bay bottom lease to Fury Water Adventures that will allow the watersports company to keep a climbing wall and platforms for kayaks and personal watercraft in the waters off Key West Harbor, abutting the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
In December, Fury applied with the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to lease a section of bay bottom between Frankfort and Calda banks on which to place the floating platforms. DEP on June 13 issued a "notice of intent to issue an environmental resource permit and lease to use sovereign submerged lands."
Fury would lease 11,436 square feet of bay bottom for five years, according to the deal. The company would be allowed to place "a floating vessel platform for 10 Jet Skis and floating platform for 10 kayaks associated with a permanently moored registered vessel and inflatable water toys," the lease agreement states.
In exchange, Fury will pay the state $2,289 upfront, which includes an annual fee of $1,831 it will have to pay for the subsequent four years, the lease agreement states.
Fury and other watersports operators have towed and stored barges between Frankfort and Calda banks and used them as staging areas for years. In the past three years, DEP had ticketed Fury and other watersports operators for leaving climbing walls, trampolines and other equipment in Pearl Basin.
State law does not prohibit watersports operators from bringing such equipment out there daily and taking it back at night. The state does have rules limiting how long companies can keep the equipment moored in state bay bottom or use bay bottom for activities that are not water-dependent, such as trampolines and climbing walls.
However, the lease would allow Fury to keep its equipment out there full time.
Fury owner Scott Saunders argued that keeping the platforms out there is less damaging to the environment, because the company will not be dropping anchor repeatedly to move the equipment.
"It makes more sense, and it is environmentally friendlier, to keep it out there than to move it and drop anchor every day," he said.
Also, state divers who inspected the site determined that the bay bottom there is void of seagrass and other fish habitat, Saunders said.
"It is basically denuded, sandy bottom there," he said.
The state has required Fury to "work with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Key West Wildlife Refuge to provide an educational program for the patrons on the Fury catamaran," the lease states.
"The educational program shall provide information regarding the importance of the marine environment including seagrass, mangroves, algae, marine turtles, manatees, corals, whales and fishes," the lease states. Fury will not be allowed to fuel vessels on the floating structures.
The environmental group Last Stand sent DEP a letter in January opposing the lease. The group questioned how the disposal of sewage would be handled, stating "there will be no marine toilets or holding tanks on anchored facilities."
Last Stand also raised concerns about personal watercraft going into the federal wildlife refuges, where they are currently prohibited. The area between Frankfort and Calda bank abuts the Key West Wildlife Refuge. Refuge managers have asked that Fury to place buoys in the water marking the refuge boundaries, Refuge Manager Anne Morkill said.
The lease would also open the door to other watersports operators placing barges in other state waters off the Florida Keys. Fury is the only operator to ask the state for a lease so far.
Last Stand has retained an attorney and filed for a time extension, which would allow the group to request a hearing through the state Department of Administrative Hearings Division, Last Stand board member George Halloran said. This would give Last Stand the opportunity to formally challenge the DEP lease, Halloran said.
"The state should not be leasing land in the backcountry for commercial operators, especially ones with Jet Skis," Halloran said. "It's a competitive business, and what is going to stop other businesses from asking the state to place these in the backcountry up and down the Keys? It doesn't seem like the right thing for our state government to do. This sets a bad precedent."