Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
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Zip line, meeting invocation move forward

MARATHON -- The Crane Point Museum and Nature Center zip line project cleared another obstacle last Thursday as the Marathon City Council denied the height variance appeal filed by four citizens who were former board members, financial supporters and eco-tour leaders at the conservation and educational site.

Despite their pleas and representation by attorney Henry Morgenstern, the height variance appeal boiled down to whether the city's planning commission successfully adhered to Marathon's code in July when finding that Planning Director George Garrett had the authority to grant a variance allowing up to four zip line towers to exceed by almost 10 feet the city's 37-foot height limit.

The council unanimously agreed that it did. Cautioning the council against making arbitrary decisions or sympathizing with unsubstantiated lay opinions, GrayRobinson Attorney Michael Marshall, the assistant city attorney, said there was substantial and competent evidence the conditional use as approved is a permitted use. Citing the staff report, Marshall concluded "proper criteria has been applied."

Morgenstern, for his part, argued that the variance failed to meet hardship and no detriment standards, among others, that must be met before exceptions can be granted.

After the council denied the appeal, an appellant asked Morgenstern what was next, indicating that the legal battle against the zip line may not be over.

The agenda's other quasi-judicial hearing concerned the development and placement of three homes on Boot Key by Sombrero Homes LLC. A compromise plan for the the placement of the homes will be made with community and staff input and will come back before the council for approval.

The charter review item regarding enforcement language for council-staff interference was postponed since a discussion earlier in the meeting initiated by Councilman Mark Senmartin indicated the charter review process may be driven by citizens rather than council. As the council was not likeminded in having the council only address the charter's lack of specifics regarding consequences for council interference with staff, further discussion was planned for January on whether to conduct a broader charter review.

In the new year, the meetings are to open with a prayer, as a resolution passed 4-1 with Senmartin opposed. The invocation does not have to be listed formally on the agenda and a precedent in Lakeland, Fla. allowing invocations has been upheld in federal court, said City Attorney John Herin.

Furthermore, said Councilwoman Ginger Snead, the city used to begin meetings with an invocation in 2002.

"Key Colony Beach, Layton and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority all have invocations at their meetings," she said. "An invocation asks for guidance. It can't hurt to have a little guidance from above."

But Senmartin disagreed: "I have all day to pray; I don't have to do it here."

Pastor Nick Vaughn of the Marathon Church of God was the only citizen to speak on the topic.

"No one has to be afraid. Prayer has always been a part of public meetings," he said as he quoted Benjamin Franklin that "God governs in the affairs of men."

The council also approved five applications for first-time home buyer grants. A new application process is open until Jan. 15 because the council anticipates additional funds being available in its grant program.

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