The habitats include hardwood hammock, wetlands, beach berm, mangroves and shoreline, all of which are present somewhere on Vorstman’s eight acres.
“Obviously, there are a lot of positives with this proposal,” Islamorada senior planner Kevin Bond said at the meeting. He rattled off job creation, increased property value, creation of a unique tourist experience, the educational opportunity and the green construction, which would go well beyond the current building requirements for energy efficiency and water conservation.
“It’s rare to see a project of this caliber come through the village,” Bond said. “It’s kind of exciting.”
But Bond said concerns outweighed the positives for him and his staff. “The reason we have so much heartburn is it is focused on the more sensitive areas.” After citing that there were other potential sites for the ecolodge in Islamorada that were less environmentally sensitive, he recommended that the local planning agency vote against the text amendment.
The agency followed his recommendation, voting it down 5-0. Amy Knowles, the vice chairman, said it would set a “dangerous precedent” to change the zoning. “Bit by bit we would lose our big pieces of undeveloped land,” she said.
Their vote does not spell doom for the project. It’s just a recommendation. On July 25, the text amendment is scheduled to go before the five-person Village Council, where there is support.
Mayor Ken Philipson says he has been in favor of the project since he heard about it 1 ½ years ago: “They are not greenhorns coming in here. Their approach is taking something that is dormant and turning it into something positive.”
While the land planning agency focuses on the environmental impact, he said his job is to focus on the good of the overall community. “It’s a pretty unique concept in the United States,” he said. “Tourists will come here and pay $500 a night for a room, not $69.”
And, even if the text amendment passes the Village Council, there still are about 20 more steps to complete with local and state agencies just to reach the permit stage. Then there is the huge issue of obtaining rights to build transient units, which are highly regulated and hard to come by in the Keys.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through and hurdles to climb, but they seem to want to do it,” Philipson said.
Vorstman has owned the land since 2003 — when he was a silent partner with VCG Properties, which bought it from Joan Petry for about $1.1 million. The land, which is on the tax rolls as six upland and three submerged parcels, was valued at $857,000 by the county property appraiser.
“There was a proposal to put one or two monster houses on it,” Vorstman said. “I wasn’t involved with that. And when I looked at it, I thought: ‘This is sick. There has to be better options out there.’ ”
In 2007, his partners wanted out and Vorstman became the sole owner of the property, which includes a 15,000-square-foot commercial-zoned piece along U.S. 1. County records show Vorstman’s AV Investments bought it for $600,000.
Last year the property value dipped to $65,096, and the county collected just $639.85 in taxes on the combined nine parcels. But part of that low value was due to the land being placed on a list of vacant properties with endangered species habitat that took away building rights. A recent court case struck down that ruling, and those properties appraisals will go back up this tax year.