Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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FIU wants a research facility at Pennekamp

KEY LARGO -- Florida International University officials said last week 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 Key Largo 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 opening pathways in Dagny Johnson park for mountain biking.

Environmentalist Michael Chenoweth, who for many years has been an advocate for preserving the North Key Largo hammocks, 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.

Monroe 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. Johnson led the charge to save the hammocks from development.

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

Speakers referred to the area many times as the last place to experience what the Florida 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, to be 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 park would be best because trails are already there.

Troeger, who has solicited hundreds of signatures to open the trails to off-road biking, 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 a recently rented Snake Creek location, 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. They have purchased a building along the highway near Pennekamp.

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

jgore@keysnews.com

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