ISLAMORADA -- In some of the world’s most environmentally sensitive locations — the rainforest of Brazil, the mountains of China and the Galapagos Islands — a Fort Lauderdale-based landscaping architecture firm has been creating eco-sustainable resorts long before going green was in vogue.
Now, the pioneering firm, EDSA, wants to create an eco-lodge much closer to home — on eight acres of vacant land near busy U.S. 1 in the Upper Keys.
At first glance, the small slice of deteriorating nature in the middle of sprawling Islamorada seems an unlikely choice for a world-class nature retreat, where eco tourists would pay a premium for the experience of being embedded with the native vegetation and wildlife.
The vacant land, whose neighbors include the Shell Shack and a CVS Pharmacy, has become a haven for vagrants and a dumping ground for trash. Non-native trees, plants and wildlife have run amok. A maze of abandoned mosquito trenches has ruined the natural water flow. Storm water drains onto it from three sides. And it was the scene of an unsolved 1998 murder, in which a local chef was found in a ditch.
“If you walked the land, you’d know it’s absolute garbage, run over by exotics; it’s a bloody mess,” said landowner Dr. Albert Vorstman, a Coral Springs urologist who grew up in New Zealand.
Vorstman, an outdoor enthusiast, says that’s why he turned to EDSA, which knows how to restore land to its natural state — and keep it that way.
“It can be a showpiece of how to save nature in an urban environment,” said Randall Gentry, a project manager for EDSA.
The firm, founded 53 years ago by the late visionary architect Edward Durrell Stone Jr., now has branch offices in Orlando, Baltimore, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and Beijing. It already has demonstrated what is possible in sensitive, rural areas, boasting of 38 eco-lodges and sustainable development master plans at sites in Kenya, the Fiji Islands, Madagascar, Egypt, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos Islands, Hawaii and the Dominican Republic.
Among them is the first project of its kind in China: the five-star Crosswaters Ecolodge, which incorporates the ancient Chinese principles of feng shui. The 70-villa resort is the first phase development of a 10-year master plan for the Nankun Shan Mountain Reserve, created in 1984 to protect the subtropical evergreen broadleaf forest.
But many of Islamorada’s residents and land management staff don’t buy the argument that the way to save the land is to develop it, even if the firm wanting to do it has an impressive global track record with 250 major awards for innovation and sustainability.
“I hope you are all wise and not act like you just fell out of a turnip truck,” Ron Levy, a former mayor of the village, said during a meeting last month of the Local Planning Agency. “My New York paranoia says it’s not really going to work.”
The main portion of the land is now zoned native residential. Under current code, only one house and one caretaker’s cottage could be built on it. The preliminary plans presented to the village in March for the “Islamorada Ecolodge” showed a 40- to 70-unit resort with a spa, restaurant and swimming pools. It does not include a dock.
To change the density allowed, EDSA has proposed a text amendment for a new eco-sustainable lodging zone that would allow up to 70 units (10 per acre) if the land was improved and stringent green requirements were met and sustained. To qualify, the land must be at least four acres and have at least three major Keys ecological habitats that need improving.