ISLAMORADA -- 2013 brought the first major progress on a long-debated Islamorada sewer system. The village lost its founder. The Village Council decided to transform its legal department, ending years of discussion. And the gateway to Islamorada got a makeover.
The village's $115 million wastewater project was just two months old as 2013 began. But as it ends, residents and business owners in much of the village, and especially in Plantation Key, can see the progress.
The fix of the long-troubled Plantation Key Colony sewer system, which began operating in 2006, has been completed. As of the end of November, the middle Plantation Key collection system was 98 percent complete. Collection lines in south Plantation Key were approximately half finished. Trenching was also well underway on Windley Key and was beginning on Upper Matecumbe Key.
In the meantime, the construction team of contractor Layne, known locally as Reynolds Water Islamorada, had also installed 90 percent of the 10-mile pipeline that will connect Islamorada to the wastewater treatment plant in Key Largo. Workers had also laid pipe underneath Tavernier and Snake creeks.
Of course, progress hasn't come without controversy. The addition of road paving to the sewer project had raised the price of the Layne contract by $8.2 million by this fall. In the meantime, the village found itself strategizing about what to do in the Venetian Shores neighborhood of Plantation Key, where a lawsuit over ownership of the roadways was holding up trenching.
An October ruling by Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia gave the town an initial victory in that case, brought by Venetian Shores resident Jim Bellizzi. But Bellizzi has since filed an appeal.
The biggest sewer-related conflict of 2013, however, stemmed from the village's plan to make the approximately 500 Islamorada properties that are to be serviced by a low-pressure grinder-pump system pay for the extra cost of installing the pumps.
When owners of those properties, many located on Lower Matecumbe Key and in the southern, oceanside portions of Upper Matecumbe, became aware of the plan, protests ensued. Property owners complained about the additional costs, estimated to be $6,500 more on average than what vacuum-line homeowners pay, and about the complications of having to install, maintain and eventually replace the grinder pumps.
In response, village officials argued that to connect all of the more remote Islamorada properties to the main vacuum sewer line would be cost prohibitive. But as anger mounted at a series of meetings over the late summer, the Village Council realized a compromise was necessary.
They got an assist from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which in September informed the village that under state law it must centrally manage the grinder pumps. The council went further though, agreeing in principal to equalize installation costs between grinder-pump and vacuum-line homes. As the year comes to an end, Layne is preparing a bid proposal for grinder-pump installation and maintenance. The village initially estimated the change would add $3.25 million to the cost of the $99 million sewer contract, but there is a chance the actual price will higher, engineer Tom Brzezinski said this month.
While progress on the sewer system was good news in Islamorada this year, the passing of village founding father Ron Levy in October after a seven-year battle with brain cancer was a decidedly unhappy occasion.
Levy, who died at 66, spearheaded Islamorada's incorporation movement beginning in 1996 and is regarded as the driving force behind the eventual founding of the village in 1998. He was also Islamorada's first mayor, but he was far from universally popular. Never afraid to take on controversy, Levy met with strong opposition during his incorporation fight, and then later, when he worked successfully to acquire the Founders Park property and sought to secure strong regulations related to development and growth.
With his passing, however, memories of old political fights took a back seat. Indeed, in the weeks and months that have followed Levy's death he has been praised for his vision and doggedness by friends and former foes alike. In November, the Village Council voted to rename the Founders Park pool as the Ron Levy Aquatic Center. And a bust of Levy is to be displayed in Village Hall.
No such honor, however, is planned for Nina Boniske. Since incorporation Boniske had run the village attorney's office for the Coral Gables-based Weiss Serota law firm, where she is a partner. But this month Weiss Serota was formally replaced by Roget Bryan, the village's first in-house attorney.
The question of replacing Weiss Serota had reverberated around the village for years. But the effort gained traction last year at the behest of Councilman Dave Purdo, who chafed at legal fees that ran in the neighborhood of $1 million annually. The re-election last fall of Ken Philipson, who had pledged to hire an in-house attorney, and the election of Mike Forster, who ran on a staunch in-house attorney platform, turned the tide.
Still, removing Weiss Serota from its place atop the village attorney's office wasn't a decision the council made easily. At a workshop in earlier February, council members tasked Councilwoman Deb Gillis with analyzing the Weiss Serota workload and with comparing the annual cost of the firm with what it would cost to run an in-house attorney's office.
Gillis, a Weiss Serota supporter, submitted her report in June. Her conclusion: An in-house attorney would cost $415,000 more than staying with Weiss Serota.
Other council members were dubious of that figure, but they conceded that the change was not likely to lead to immediate savings. Still, they decided to make the move, saying that having an attorney full-time at Village Hall would lead to more continuity. Since the in-house attorney doesn't bill by the hour, it would also take away any financial incentive to litigate, they argued.
In October, the council selected Bryan, who was most recently an assistant city attorney for the Broward County town of West Park. He took over on Dec. 4, but he hasn't fully replaced Weiss Serota. The firm is assisting with the transition and is still expected to handle some of the village's litigation, as well as other types of specialized legal work.
Islamorada's 2013 makeovers didn't only happen in Village Hall. At the northern oceanside edge of the village, the Casa Mar shopping plaza took form in what had been a series of dilapidated storefronts left vacant after the 2007 demise of the Cay Clubs development company.
Developer Atlantic Horizons Islamorada LLC began the renovation of the buildings around January. Work proceeded efficiently enough that some merchants began to move in by August. Other stores waited until the late fall, in part because sewer pipeline installation at Tavernier Creek had turned the narrow Freelan Road that fronts Case Mar into a dust bowl.
Still, when Casa Mar held its grand opening the first weekend of December, 14 merchants had set up shop. Cafes, art galleries, a dive shop and a fish market are among the plaza's offerings.