Fort Lauderdale firm wants to build ‘eco-lodge’ in deserted plot in Upper Keys

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.

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.

Now, Vorstman has taken on new partners who support the ecolodge venture, forming Bonefish Holdings LLC. He says, the same frustrations remain in dealing with rules, regulations and zoning that is supposed to protect the environment, but in reality does not.

“You can’t just lock the door and put a fence around it and live in Disney World and think that the native flora and fauna is going to survive,” he said.

Deteriorating habitats, such as the land in Islamorada, don’t get better on their own. Millions of dollars are required for restoration and maintenance. That’s where the high-paying eco-tourists come in, Gentry said.

During a recent tour of the land, Tom Donovan, owner of project participant Donovan Construction, pointed out the remains of a foundation where a house used to be years ago. Someone had pitched a tent next to it. Another tent, despite no trespassing signs, was put up near the beach.

Donovan didn’t need to point out all the trash, much of which has washed ashore from the nearby sandbar used by partiers on boats just offshore of Holiday Isle.

“We have a guy who comes in here every few months and cleans it out,” he said. “But it’s an uphill battle.”

Invasive Australian pines line much of the shoreline, choking out native species. Brown standing water is everywhere. But an eagle also was perched on the tallest tree near the shoreline that faces out to the Atlantic.

If the eco-lodge project goes through, all the invasive trees, plants and species will be taken out. Natives will be planted. The mosquito trenches will be removed, and a system to restore the natural water flow will be put in place.

Only pervious pavement will be used. Water will be collected under it in channels, where it will run through plants that clean it before it’s discharged into the ground.

“This system is what eco tourists want to learn about,” Gentry said. “They are not just the people who go to a park or botanical garden.”

There will be solar power, cisterns to capture water, steam recovery on dishwater and other green measures. And, three types of fish that eat mosquito larvae will be stocked on the property.

“What we hope to do is make it a functional wetland again,” Donovan said. “I think the project we want to do would be a feather in the cap of Islamorada and really all of the Keys.”