Growth ordinance leaves original 'Red Cross' home built in 1936 in Keys in limbo

Shirley Faye Albury remembers holding her grandmother’s hand as they crossed the Overseas Highway in the late 1930s to deliver pudding to her Uncle Johnny and Aunt Ida Pinder, who lived in a “Red Cross” home.

The concrete fortress — a three-bedroom, one-bath dwelling with a cistern underneath for its water supply — was one of 28 documented homes the Red Cross funded and the Works Progress Administration built for people who lost their homes in the Category 5 Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Last month the storm was upgraded to the strongest hurricane in U.S. history by the National Hurricane Center.

Today, the house is still there, complete with a plaque on a rock that commemorates the historical significance of the structure and its original owner, Johnny “Brush” Pinder. Pinder, one of the Upper Keys’ early homesteaders from the 1800s, had a famed schooner named “Island Home” that delivered mail, key limes and pineapples from Miami to Key West.

“Somebody put a wooden structure over the top of it, but there’s a Red Cross home under it,” Albury said. “They were built to really last.”

The yellow house with green trim, across the street from Founders Park, caught the eye of Julian and Lisa Siegel of Fort Lauderdale. But when they contracted to buy it, they learned that the house can’t be used now as a residence.

That’s because in 1990, the structure was being used as the office for “South Fishing,” which offered Fish the World trips to Venezuela, Belize and Costa Rica, and therefore was listed as a commercial property in the census. And on that census Monroe County bases its implementation of its Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO), which established a building permit allocation system for residential construction. The environmentally sensitive Keys are mandated by the state to limit development.

And the house — whose previous owners removed the kitchen and shower — can’t be used as a commercial property, either. It lost its grandfathered-in “nonconforming use” status in the residential neighborhood after the previous owners, who ran Keys Engineering Services, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and the property lay vacant for more than 365 days.

“It’s insane,” said Julian Siegel, who is scheduled to close on the house for $205,000 on Thursday.

Village of Islamorada councilman David Purdo, who lives in the house’s neighborhood, Plantation Lake Estates, thinks so, too: “I don’t want to see an historic building sit there for five years and rot.”

Cheryl Cioffari, director of planning for Islamorada, called it a “sticky situation” and one she has not encountered in seven years in the job.

Islamorada’s code writers did not contemplate an existing structure that originally was used as a home getting converted back to a home after being used as a commercial property.

As it stands now, Cioffari said, for the Red Cross home to be used as a home again, the new owners must apply for a residential unit permit. Islamorada gives out only 22 per year, and about 70 people are on a waiting list.

People can move up the list based on points given out for things like energy efficiency plans, but not for having an existing structure, she said.

And if the new owners wanted to use the structure as a business, they would have to apply for an amendment for future use. That would take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, with no guarantee of approval.

“Of course, we don’t want to see vacant buildings in the community,” Cioffari said. “We continue to look and see if there is something we’ve missed, but we have not found it.”

She said the planning department tried to work with Keys Island Properties, which represents the bank that took the property after the bankruptcy, on how to prevent it from becoming a nonconforming building. “They could have kept an office in there but chose not to for whatever reason,” she said.

Keys Island Properties listed the 1,116-square-foot freestanding house on its 11,455 square foot lot as an “Historic Islamorada Treasure.” The listing, with a sales price of $238,700, features pictures of the house and a 1999 Miami Herald article about the Red Cross homes with the headline “Built to Last.”

Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson said all but three or four of the Red Cross homes are still in existence, and the ones that aren’t were demolished. Albury said the Red Cross home she lived in across the street from the Pinders, was taken down to make way for the sign to the Plantation Yacht Harbor Club (now Founders Park).

“It took more money to destroy it than it did to build it,” she said.

The homes were sturdy square bunkers with foot-thick poured concrete frames and roofs reinforced with steel rods. Stout wooden shutters lay flush with the exterior wall when shut to prevent hurricane winds from getting through.

The plaque in front of the Pinder home explained that Johnny “Brush” Pinder had built the schooner “Island Home,” launched at full tide and full moon. It said that in Spanish, Island Home is “Ees la morada,” the name first given to the Village of Upper Matecumbe by William Krome, who built Henry Flagler’s railway through the Keys. The schooner survived the Labor Day hurricane, but Pinder’s home did not.

Albury said the Pinders both got sick and moved to Key West to receive care. Since then, county records show, the house has changed ownership at least seven times. Twice, it was part of divorce settlements.

Siegel, who owns Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Market, which features 500 microbrews, said he plans to go through with the purchase despite the house being in a state of limbo.

He wants to use it as a second home and maybe even move with his wife and two kids, aged 9 and 11, to Islamorada and commute to his restaurant. “My kids love the outdoors,” he said. “They love to fish off the docks and play at the playground at Founders Park.”

He wrote to Purdo a tongue-in-cheek list of creative things he thought about to get around the “ridiculous” code, including going for the commercial variance and turning the structure into a bed and breakfast: “My family would be the only customer.”

The planning department’s Cioffari said that’s not an option: “Bed and breakfasts are not permitted in the Village.”

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