July 24, 2019

ISLAMORADA — Unwilling to commit to an expensive two-year contract, the Islamorada Village Council agreed to a nine-month extension with the Freebee transportation service July 13.

The 5-0 vote to continue talks with the electric bus service, which provides rides at no cost to passengers, followed a brief detour into a verbal ditch when council members Cheryl Meads and Ken Davis exchanged sharp words and baleful glances.

“Both of you, please take a breath,” implored Mayor Deb Gillis.

Earlier, Freebee managing director Jason Spiegel outlined three proposals ranging from $230,096 to $460,391 annually in a two-year contract, with two new electric 12-passenger buses that can travel throughout Islamorada. Currently, Freebee’s two five-passenger shuttles that travel at lower speed cannot cross U.S. 1 bridges that link the village’s four islands.

“I am so against this,” Meads said. “The price is huge. We have to start saying no to things we can’t afford. We can’t afford this. People, really, call an Uber.”

She described the plan as “absolutely insane” and a “shocking amount of money, in my opinion.”

Davis interjected, and Meads objected.

“At some point, somebody has to interrupt you, I’m sorry,” Davis said.

Meads called that a lack of respect, adding, “I’m not going to sit up here and be bullied by anybody.”

Davis said later, “I sincerely apologize, that was rude.”

The council voted to continue the on-call service for another nine months while seeking grants and outside funding sources.

Councilman Jim Mooney and Gillis described the Freebee service as popular with tourists, a way to reduce impaired driving and a help for residents who have transportation problems.

Resort approvals

The Cheeca Lodge and Spa was approved for a Major Conditional Use permit that will allow the resort to build a new conference center of 13,581 square feet.

The 25-acre resort also plans “a new hotel wing of 27,094 square feet” that will have 40 hotel rooms, using available allocations and space from some rooms to be demolished.

Islamorada Planning Department staff recommended approval with five conditions. The council voted unanimously in favor, with Mooney and Vice Mayor Mike Forster praising Cheeca’s community involvement.

At the Sunset Inn property at mile marker 82.2, owner Sunset Ventures LLC reached an agreement with Upper Matecumbe Key neighbors to build 24 affordable housing units in four buildings on a vacant one-acre parcel behind the 30-room hotel.

The plan was downsized from an unpopular proposal to build 41 units in a single building on the property. The Sunset Inn total property cover nearly three acres, including a restaurant and retail stores.

The developers agreed to two dozen conditions sought by neighbors and village planners. Council approval was a unanimous 4-0. Forster abstained as owner of Mangrove Mike’s Cafe on the property.

Gillis, former owner of Sunset Inn, cautioned that proposed parking for employees, residents and customers could be tight.