December 26, 2018

Area officials, dignitaries and guests gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the first of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust 'Keys Cottages' to be completed on Big Pine Key.

TIMOTHY O'HARA/Free Press Area officials, dignitaries and guests gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the first of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust 'Keys Cottages' to be completed on Big Pine Key.

BIG PINE KEY — 2018 comes to a close on Big Pine Key much as it began, with a focus on replacing homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma in order to provide shelter and restore a sense of normalcy to the island’s residents and workforce.

While recovering from the September 2017’s storm’s widespread destruction was the main narrative of the past year, other headline grabbers included wildfires raging through local neighborhoods, a change of leadership for the region’s chamber of commerce, the reopening of a landmark RV park and a successful challenge of the sewage grinder-pump mandate.

Affordable housing received a boost in August when the Florida Keys Community Land Trust opened the first of eight planned “Keys Cottages” workforce homes on Big Pine Key. The groundbreaking was the culmination of a philanthropic effort spearheaded by Big Torch Key homeowners Maggie and Richard Whitcomb to bring relief to one of the hardest-hit areas by Hurricane Irma.

The new home was built in the Avenues neighborhood, where homes leveled by the storm remain under construction more than a year later.

Earlier this month county officials also took steps to help with Big Pine’s housing woes.

The Monroe County Commission approved purchasing the 20,000-square-foot Howard’s Haven trailer park on Big Pine Key to redevelop for workforce housing. It has 13 building rights for single-family units. The county plans to rebuild up to 10 units as affordable housing and potentially transfer the remaining building rights to future projects, according to county spokeswoman Cammy Clark.

Meanwhile, the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group is moving forward with a “volunteer village” at the former Big Pine Habitat ReStore site owned by the county. The village will provide housing for volunteers helping with the ongoing housing recovery effort.

The group has purchased two containers that can house 10 volunteers each. The 40-by-12 ½-foot containers are scheduled to arrive in mid-January and will be set up on chassis to make them portable.

The volunteer village is scheduled to be ready by Feb. 1. Some of the volunteers who will be housed there will provide skilled work for general contractors. Others will provide unskilled house repair and building work for the Methodist Conference and local Habitat for Humanity chapters.

Funding comes from the American Red Cross, Ocean Reef Community Foundation, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Miami Foundation and United Way of the Florida Keys. Funding commitments also have been made by the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Assistance Network. The Salvation Army also is providing a bathhouse for the volunteer village.

“This really has turned into a call to arms within the nonprofit community for those who do disaster recovery,” said Michelle Luckett, executive director of the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group. “This also highlights the importance of a volunteer workforce months and years after a storm.”

Island ablaze

As everyone was hard at work rebuilding Big Pine, the island’s pine rocklands caught fire in late April and burned for a week.

A brush fire began just before 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in a wooded area off Hibiscus Drive and raged into the night. Once the sun came up Monday, charred embers quickly grew into fast-moving fires. Thick smoke blanketed all of the island and once healthy hammocks were burnt.

The fires chased George Adams and Juanita Kretschmar from their 19th Street home. Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies knocked on their door shortly after 3 p.m. that Sunday as the fire was “leaping from one block to the next,” Adams said.

They grabbed their two dogs, bird and some clothes and drove away, not knowing if they would return to a standing home. Shortly before midnight, they returned to find their home intact, but without power and water. There was some small damage to the home’s porch and and a burned up water storage container, Adams said.

“The fire was on either side of us,” Adams said. “The whole neighborhood was quickly becoming engulfed in flames. We saw fire trucks rolling in as we were leaving.”

Crews went from street to street and property to property fighting to contain blaze.

Local, state and federal forestry and fire crews, and a helicopter — dropping 500 gallons of water a time — chased the fires from the Avenues neighborhood to Key Deer Boulevard. As soon as one fire was contained another would quickly erupt.

With strong winds and dry conditions, the fire quickly spread and burned 72 acres before finally being extinguished on April 30.

Property destruction was limited to one home and a detached garage. Nobody was injured, and no loss of wildlife was reported.

New chamber chief

About the time of the fires, a new executive director of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, Dave Turner, was getting to know more than 300 chamber members and community leaders from Little Duck Key to the south end of Stock Island.

Turner quickly found himself researching grants as part of an effort to help his membership recover from Hurricane Irma.

“I don’t believe most of the population in the Lower Keys, or most people, have experienced anything like this,” he said at the time. “I don’t think anyone expected so much debris and damage.”

As a former Trenton, N.J., battalion fire chief, and after 30 years of putting out fires, Turner’s stoicism has equipped him to face the storm’s aftermath. He and his wife, Kimberly Matthews, Monroe County’s senior strategic planner, moved to Big Pine two months ahead of the hurricane.

RV resort rises again

For months following Hurricane Irma, Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina, mile marker 38, was littered with overturned RVs, abandoned appliances and other evidence of Irma, as errant awnings jutted like broken bones at disturbing angles and indistinguishable piles of debris covered the large expanse of land near the base of the Seven Mile Bridge.

Photos of the devastated resort appeared in more than 600 news reports in the storm’s aftermath, but in September there was something else to see at Sunshine Key.

Reopening in phases, the resort announced the availability of more than 100 sites, with a total of nearly 400 scheduled to open before the end of the year.

“Following the extensive debris clean-up, the rebuilding of the resort has included a massive infrastructure grid installation, including underground water, sewer and electric utilities, rebuilding of the marina and marina store, refinishing of tennis courts, a renovated recreation center with a custom pool table, a new corn hole field area, re-thatching of tiki huts and now provides stepladder access to an ocean swimming area from sunset pier,” according to a press release.

A new cable grid and road paving is also planned.

The legal grind

In October, Circuit Judge Tim Koenig ruled that Monroe County and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority did not follow their own rules when ordering people to place grinder-pump sewer technology in their yards.

Koenig ruled in favor of Big Pine Key residents Louise Delany and Gail Kulikowsky, who argued the FKAA and Monroe County rules call for the controversial grinder pumps to be placed in the county right-of-way, not on residents’ properties. The case will be further litigated to determine whether Delany and Kulikowsky waited too long to challenge the county and the FKAA, and if the waiting resulted in the county and its taxpayers incurring significant costs.

It is unknown at this time if the lawsuit will lead to the county and FKAA having to power and maintain the grinder pumps placed in the right-of-way. The ruling does not require the county to remove grinder pumps from the roughly 1,700 properties currently with the equipment.

Plans call for the county and the FKAA to place 1,950 grinder pumps in residents’ yards in Big Pine Key, the Torch keys and other remote areas of the county. All but 270 of those property owners have signed easement agreements and allowed the FKAA to place the pumps in their yards, according to the FKAA.

The lawsuit has dragged on for several years and the work on the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment system is almost entirely complete. A group of residents called Dump the Pumps has been fighting the use of grinder pumps, which are a low-pressure sewage collection system.

Places to play

Monroe County in December earmarked $579,000 to repair three Big Pine parks damaged by Hurricane Irma.

The $579,000 project will replace fencing at Watson Field Park, Big Pine Community Park and Blue Heron Park, among other improvements.

The work will begin with Watson Field Park, 30150 South Street, followed by Big Pine Community Park, 31009 Atlantis Drive, and Blue Heron Park, 30451 Lytton’s Way. Construction is expected to be completed in April.

Meanwhile, refurbishment of Bahia Honda State Park’s beaches and amenities continues, and the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex’s new visitor center is nearing completion after Irma-caused delays, with an opening tentatively expected in January.