Florida Keys News
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Zipline future up in air

MARATHON -- The proposed Crane Point Hammock zipline, which appears to be hanging by a thread, could be snipped at the next Marathon City Council meeting.

Marathon's Community Services Coordinator Debbie London will give a report at the April 8 meeting regarding the proposed Crane Point Museum & Nature Center zipline project and state-reported deficiencies.

However, the council already has indicated it is stepping back from its supporting role in a $750,000 Community Block Development Grant for the project due to the Florida Keys Sea and Land Trust's inability to meet deadlines contained in the grant documents. The CDBG grant agreement expires Oct. 29.

The presentation is a staff task and the policy decision regarding the grant is up to the council.

At the council's Feb. 26 meeting, City Attorney John Herin said Marathon could be in breach of the contract with the administrator of the grant, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, if it did not respond to a letter from DEO dated Feb. 24.

"Because the city is the sponsor, DEO is saying there are some serious issues," he said, adding that a copy of the letter had also been provided to Crane Point's board of directors.

DEO Community Program Manager Bob Dennis wrote that Crane Point had failed to submit an environmental assessment report for the project and a request for a wage decision. Crane Point's environmental assessment was due to the state last March and the wage decision, which would have been included in construction bid documents, was due last June, according to London.

Jeff Smith, president of the board of directors of the Florida Keys Sea and Land Trust, which operates the museum and 63-acre conservation area, said the board would like the city to allow it until October to address the needs of the zipline grant and not proceed with early termination.

He said the board has sought to address environmental concerns with the white-crowned pigeon population, nesting season and habitat with DEO and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in a three-way meeting, as well as looking at design options for the $1.1 million zipline course.

Smith is seeking an official response as to whether the DEO is using the "threatened" species of the white-crowned pigeon as a "new planning tool," saying the zipline would not be the only project affected if that is the case. He also said it is a long, drawn-out process to address the white-crowned pigeon issue.

If the city does not remain supportive, Smith said the board could consider seeking private sector funds. Since Crane Point is privately-owned, it does not have taxing authority, nor is it a state park and thus a capital campaign is in the works. Smith proposed an alternative grant might be able to fund the zipline project. Certainly, there is risk involved in pursuing private financing, he said.

If the trust were to back away from the property, as has been recently hinted, Herin said the threat of having no operator of the property would not be a concern for the town. Environmental and educational restrictions on Crane Point would preserve it in its natural state in perpetuity, and likely another environmental entity would consider operations, he suggested.

Mayor Dick Ramsay said he hopes Crane Point will respond to the state's letter, but "the city can't do their job." He said the city has tried to support the trust and property.

"Many in Marathon support Crane Point as an environmental asset of the Middle Keys, and regardless of the zipline, Crane Point will continue to be a jewel of the Middle Keys," he said.

Ramsay has been privy to discussions where options for the property's use include an educational facility offering master's degrees or an eco-tourism destination in conjunction with sites such as the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

One thing is sure, he said, "Crane Point will continue to exist beyond me."

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