January 8, 2020

THERESA JAVA/Free Press
Marine Mammal Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that used the site to respond and care for stranded dolphins and whales. The site currently houses a stilt building on its fairly secluded 3.46 acre property.

THERESA JAVA/Free Press Marine Mammal Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that used the site to respond and care for stranded dolphins and whales. The site currently houses a stilt building on its fairly secluded 3.46 acre property.

KEY LARGO — The commercial Tarpon Basin property at mile marker 102 that used to be a safe haven for stranded dolphins is on the market, but the rescue group that has owned and used the property for years hopes to keep it.

Marine Mammal Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that used the site to respond and care for stranded dolphins and whales. The site currently houses a stilt building on its fairly secluded 3.46 acre property.

The organization has restructured itself and aligned its mission with Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder unit to respond and rescue dolphins and whales in a 10,000-square-mile area stretching from Cape Coral to the Dry Tortugas.

As part of its restructuring and after years of an embroiled legal battle with Monroe County over code violations on the property, MMC filed for bankruptcy in 2018 to effectively save the property from the auction block.

In June 2018, the nonprofit proffered a $925,000 settlement with the Monroe County Commission, which satisfied $520,942 the county was owed in an awarded judgment and settled on a compromised amount of 67.5 cents for the $598,530 amount owed in county code enforcement liens.

MMC has held the title to the property since 2009. In 2015 it failed to make two payments to two leaseholders and Monroe County stepped in to keep the bayfront property off the auction block by putting up $520,000 to pay off two private mortgages taken out by the MMC.

The county also wanted to collect nearly $600,000 in code fines stacked against former MMC management for unapproved construction and unsafe conditions in the small office building.

The county was looking at purchasing the property and using it to service a mooring field and/or as a site for affordable housing.

The Kallberg family helped MMC retain ownership after the group filed bankruptcy in 2018.

“They’ve [Kallbergs] held the property for us for over a year,” said MMC new board president Art Cooper. “They want to see us be able to take it over. The [Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder] has a 10-year lease on the property and the first right of refusal. We want to continue owning the property and we’d need to raise $2.1 million to be able to do that.”

The property is a vital part of MMC’s mission, Cooper said.

“It [the site] would provide critical emergent care for sick or injured dolphins and whales,” he said. “With all rescues we need to relatively and rapidly return them to natural waters and we can do that there.”

The Kallbergs would like to move on to other philanthropic interests, according to Cooper.

The Lovell Realty Group, which is owned by the Kallbergs, also paid MMC’s bankruptcy legal fees, set up a kitty and paid for an independent property appraisal, among other things, according to Cooper.

John Smigiel, the Lovell Realty Group listing agent, said his firm remains a silent backer of MMC in support of its mission and especially in response to the county’s heavy-handed efforts to take over the property.

“The firm is a committed partner to MMC,” Smigiel said. “I think this situation is kind of unusual. … I’ve never heard of a county buying a mortgage out from someone.”

Cooper previously told county commissioners that he’s aiming for a “world-class educational facility” with dormitories, wet labs and more. That remains part of his vision for the site.

“The bottom line is, I’ve always been the guy that just wants to rescue dolphins and wales,” he said.

tjava@keysnews.com