Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Peary Court a constant battleground
Site of barracks, softball, protest, military housing, property-tax war

Before it became a political battleground over property-tax exemption for private companies, the 29 acres of Peary Court had weathered wars, typhoid fever and defense spending cuts.

The island dirt has also been a final resting place for the bones of the dead.

In 1994, it was the home field for a Key West-wide fight over the Navy's plans to turn the then-green space, and two hallowed softball fields that hosted some 800 games a year from 1974 to 1990, into town homes.

For locals, Peary Court means different things depending on one's personal chronology.

"I have two thoughts; thoughts of the housing that was there when I was in high school, driving there and picking up dates that lived there," said City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, an elected leader here for 20 years. "I also think about playing softball there. I have two sets of memories."

When the Navy took back its land in 1990, as per an agreement with the city, local dissent boiled over in an us-against-them argument to keep Peary Court a park.

The island uproar culminated on Jan. 13, 1994, with the arrest of former City Commissioner Harry Powell after he holed up in a trailer on the site with gasoline cans, a motorcycle battery and fertilizer, threatening an explosion if his "Keep it Green" campaign wasn't heard out by the powers that be.

Powell got plenty of news coverage, two years' prison, 13 years of probation and a Shel Silverstein poem written in his honor:

He said someone's got to stop,

this building boom and T-shirt shops

'cause paradise is much too sweet to lose.

So, I'll keep this island green,

or blow us all to smithereens

Key West got a new military housing development that has yet to deliver a cent of local property taxes and, according to the Monroe County Property Appraiser's Office, is part of a $11.3 million back-taxes lien slapped on Southeast Housing, a division of the corporate giant Balfour Beatty.

Southeast sued and legislators drew up bills meant to protect that type of private-military venture from landing on the local property tax rolls.

This week, a state senator narrowed the scope of the Senate's version of the bill, amending it to exempt only housing used by military families, not civilians.

"This is a for-profit company that engaged in a for-profit venture," U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., said this week. "This isn't what the city bargained for."

Today, Peary Court appears every inch a friendly, ready-made neighborhood of 157 town houses rented to civilians and military families, stretched between White Street and Palm Avenue.

Construction of the family housing cost $13 million, starting in October 1992 and finishing in May 1995.

On June 28, 1995, the Navy held an opening ceremony. On the thank-you list inside the simple program, the city of Key West was named last.

That local housing stock isn't going anywhere at the moment.

Developers who had a sweeping construction plan scrapped it all earlier this year when the Historic Architectural Review Commission, an appointed volunteer board, trashed it as unacceptable.

Rather than walk out with a denial over their plans, White Street Partners withdrew the whole thing during a meeting at Old City Hall.

They haven't yet approached the city with new ideas, City Planner Don Craig said Friday.

But for a time, between 1974 and 1990, this land was essentially a part of Key West, as the city leased it for a buck a year from the Navy, which took it back in 1990 after a blistering political fight with the island's leaders.

Peary Court, named for North Pole explorer and Naval Academy graduate Robert Peary, who was stationed in Key West in 1881, housed troops from 1831 to 1847.

The old barracks were torn down in 1951, to make way for Navy family housing that lasted until 1974 when that, too, was bulldozed.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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