ISLAMORADA -- The Village Council approved the newest site plan for a supermarket at mile marker 81 on Upper Matecumbe Key last week, but in a surprising turn of events, the market is no longer going to be a Winn-Dixie.
Exactly which grocery store chain Win Development is negotiating with remains a mystery, however.
"I've been talking with some people that are much better options than Winn-Dixie," Win's managing member, Owen Ewing, told the council during the Feb. 13 hearing without being more specific.
He added that he was in talks with two companies. Winn-Dixie, he said, pulled out of the project in the first week of February. The decision was the supermarket chain's, Ewing said outside the meeting hall, though he added that he had been pushing for that outcome in order to open the door for the better options.
The sudden absence of Winn-Dixie from the 22,000-square-foot project more than three years after the Jacksonville-based company began working with the previous property owner, Net5FDA, caught some of the council off guard. But other council members may have had foreknowledge.
In fact, Ewing and his attorney, Patty Silver, only revealed that their longtime partner was out after Mayor Ted Blackburn specifically asked if the market was still slated to be a Winn-Dixie.
A 3-2 majority of council members were philosophical about the change, especially after James White, the village's land-use legal counsel, explained that their responsibility was to weigh the merits of the site plan. The council, White said, is not empowered to consider what company will do business at the site.
Councilman Mike Forster noted that even on the Upper Matecumbe Publix plan the council approved in December, Publix could be replaced by a different supermarket without the council's approval as long as the property is developed per the approved plan.
But Blackburn and Councilman Dave Purdo were miffed at the sudden departure of Winn-Dixie from the project, as well as by Ewing's unwillingness to reveal with which companies he is negotiating.
"They lied to me," Purdo said, referencing the market drawings that were in front of the council, which specifically referenced Winn-Dixie. "They just plain lied to me, and I don't like it."
Earlier in the hearing, Win overcame what might have been its biggest hurdle to the site plan approval when Planning Director Cheryl Cioffari reversed her original recommendation that the council deny the application. Her change, she explained, came as a result of a parking and cross-access agreement that Win Development and its northern neighbor, Islamorada resident Michael Anzalone, had submitted just a few hours before the hearing.
With the agreement in place, the market is guaranteed the 103 parking spaces it must have under village code, Cioffari told the Free Press after the hearing. In her earlier recommendation of denial, Cioffari noted that the combined parking lots for the market and the neighbor, the shuttered Iguana Club, aren't large enough to accommodate the grocery and any restaurant that might replace the Iguana Club. But in the post-hearing interview, she explained that the issue doesn't need to be addressed until a new tenant seeks to occupy the Iguana Club site.
In addition to the revelation about Winn-Dixie, last week's hearing was notable for the lack of public comment it garnered. In contrast to the council's site plan hearing over the proposed mile marker 83.2 Publix in December, in which dozens of people showed up to speak both for and against the market, no members of the public commented at last week's hearing.
Neighbors of the Publix property have since filed two lawsuits against that project. Ewing, however, headed off at least much of the potential opposition to the proposed mile marker 81 market by making agreements with both former councilman Bob Johnson, who lives immediately south of the market site, and with the Coral Cove neighborhood, which is located just east of the site, on the ocean side of the Old Highway.
Under those agreements, Win Development will erect sound walls and noise buffers.
Forster, Vice Mayor Deb Gillis and Councilman Ken Philipson voted for the site plan, while Blackburn and Purdo voted in opposition.