Florida Keys News
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Ecolodge developer makes personal pitch to council

ISLAMORADA -- Nearly a year after Coral Springs urologist Bert Vorstman had his effort to develop the 70-unit Islamorada Ecolodge on Upper Matecumbe Key thwarted by the Village Council, he's asking the town to give the project a second look.

Only this time around, Vorstman himself is at the forefront of the lobbying efforts.

"I was naive," he said last week during a walkthrough of the 8-acre site at mile marker 83, bayside. "I didn't think for a moment that I would have to take a center-stage approach and meet and greet everybody."

Last spring and summer, Vorstman mainly watched as his design team from the Fort Lauderdale-based EDSA planning firm pushed for the council's support of the project. But in late July, council members said no to a special Eco-Sustainable Lodging zoning designation that EDSA had devised as part of its effort to win approval of 70 units on the property.

Vorstman says he believed that EDSA's long, worldwide resume of designing eco-friendly lodges and of consulting with governments on ecotourism regulations was going to be enough to earn the council's ear.

Now he knows better.

Over the past month, Vorstman, 66, has met individually with all five council members to explain what he feels are the benefits, both ecological and economic, that his project would bring to Islamorada. And last fall he one-upped that effort by meeting directly with Gov. Rick Scott, he said.

Scott, Vorstman asserted, loved the project, though he didn't plan to get involved in what, at least for now, is a local decision process.

"He said, 'Don't give up,'" Vorstman explained.

For now at least, Vorstman's actual proposal hasn't changed since the setback last summer.

Renderings of Islamorada Ecolodge show five guestroom buildings, a spa, a main lodge, an office building and five worker housing units. All told, the rendered buildings would amount to approximately 60,000 square feet.

But Vorstman emphasized last week that the renderings are really just a starting point for conversation and that he is open to making significant adjustments.

"Nothing is set in stone," he said.

What Vorstman said he won't change are the several environmentally friendly elements of his proposal. Plans call for a water reuse system, green-certified construction and onsite solar power generation.

Proposal documents also say that Vorstman and EDSA would clean out and expand the site's hardwood hammock. They would improve stormwater drainage on the upland portion of the property in order to rehabilitate a degraded wetland closer to the water's edge. And they would replant the property's sand berm.

Economic consulting firm Fishkind Associates, which Vorstman retained, estimates that the resort would bring $14.6 million in economic activity to the area during the year of construction. Once open, the resort would create 73 jobs and have an annual economic impact of $13.5 million, according to the estimate.

Still, just as was the case last year, the project faces an uphill battle, both regulatory and political. For one thing, Vorstman would have to obtain development rights for the 70 lodging units -- a big challenge since state growth regulations cap the number of hotel and motel rooms in Islamorada at present levels.

In addition, the site is currently zoned native residential, allowing only for the construction of up to two homes. Vorstman would need the Village Council to rezone it for commercial use. And if he sticks with his environmental message, he'll have to simultaneously convince the council that such a change would be an ecological plus.

Doing so will require Vorstman to make the case that the site is already heavily disturbed. He says it is. And, indeed, numerous exotic Australian pines line the shorelines. But last year, village biologist Susan Sprunt said the property's ecosystem, while not pristine, was also not in decline.

Vorstman says he believes the planning department didn't give his team a fair shake.

Biologists, he said, "are not above positioning their point of view."

"The first step to taking the next step is hearing from commissioners that this is worth taking a second look," he said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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