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Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, June 27, 2013
FIU wants a research facility near Pennekamp

Florida International University officials said Tuesday night that they want to build a research facility on a tract of land near the edge of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The meeting in Key Largo was part of a preliminary input session among residents and agents from the state parks system, who are addressing management plans for Dagny Johnson Hammock Botanical State Park and Pennekamp.

Reconfiguration of the general management plan occurs every 10 years.

In addition to Pennekamp Park Manager Pat Wells, an official from the state Department of Environmental Protection listened to many speakers mainly about two issues during the two-hour meeting: FIU and Florida Keys Community College building a research educational facility next to Pennekamp, and open pathways in Dagny Johnson park for mountain biking.

Environmentalist Michael Chenoweth, who for many years has helped preserve the botanical park, did not support either idea. He said the bike trail would just be a boon for the bicycling industry in town. As for the college research center, he wants universities to purchase their own waterfront land.

County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, who represents the Key Largo district, said the botanical park should be left alone and the late Dagny Johnson would not agree with a bike trail.

"There is no way," Murphy said. "This lady will come back to haunt us."

Many of the residents at the meeting previously fought to preserve the botanical park from developers.

The area was also referred to many times as the last place to experience what the Keys were before development of the islands.

"This is what is used to be," Murphy said. "This is all we have."

Other public dissenters of the bike trails included Monroe County Planning Commissioner Ron Miller, who stressed that a two-lane bike trail along County Road 905 being installed next year could meet the needs of cyclists.

State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, did not speak at the meeting, but has been opposed to modifying the closed area of the park.

Proponents of the trails say bicycle riding is as harmless as hiking.

After the meeting, Steve Troeger, a local bike shop owner and member of the Key Largo Bicycle Association, said he thought Dagny Johnson would be best because the trails were already there.

Troeger, who has solicited hundreds of signatures to open the trails, said he is open to finding an alternate location, but wants to keep the idea going.

"We're going to rewrite our proposal and move on," he said.

The research center proposal may be gaining traction, though.

Jim Fourqurean, a professor and researcher at FIU, said he wants to find a permanent research facility in Key Largo. Fourqurean, who oversees Aquarius Reef Base from Snake Creek, has long been looking to move FIU into the Upper Keys.

Representing Keys Ahead, a nonprofit trying to bring college instruction to the Keys, former Plantation Key School Principal Vanessa Strickland and Susan Hammaker support the research facility as a way to educate the public.

A second public hearing will be scheduled to update the public on the progress of the plan.

jgore@keysnews.com

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