Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time for an Investment?

Below is part of an article on the shocking rise in crime among very young people right here in Florida:

High crime ratesIn a city such as Daytona — where poverty lives among the weeded lots and sagging houses off the palm-lined, neoned strip, behind the triple-bolted doors of tenements in the shadow of the Speedway — teen crime and even preteen crime have proven to be resilient adversaries.
Here and in other cities, chronically high juvenile crime rates — those ranging above the national average of kids under 15 committing 5 percent of violent crimes, 7 percent of robberies and 9 percent of burglaries — fray the patience of judges and politicians and pop up on newspaper front pages. Each spike in offenses prompts a new round of questions, namely:
What will it take to keep our kids out of the juvenile justice system — for some, just a pipeline to the prison system? More aggressive policing? More social services? Harsher sentences? Or something else?
Would programs to modify the behavior of kids as young as 5 help? Or would taxpayers dismiss that as just more nanny government, especially at a time of economic slowdown, when local and state governments are desperate to cut spending?
Chitwood doesn't hesitate in answering.
"I've got 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds committing burglary and stealing cars now. What are they going to be doing when they're 21?" he says. "Hey, either you pay when they go to state or federal prison, or you're going to clean the crap up now. But somewhere along the line you are going to pay."
Could this be the beginning of a bitter harvest from three decades of misdirected conservative economics? I'm as conservative (and cheap) as anyone, and have always realized that government (and also the educational establishment) traditionally lag far behind free enterprise business in getting things done effectively and economically. might be time for the pendulum to swing the other way. Even here in Monroe County, non-profit organizations which provide a lot of free and beneficial social services are hurting from cutbacks in state funding. It might also be time to realize that charity begins at home. And that a stitch in time saves nine.
"So even to old age and gray hair, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might (and a few basic rules for living together harmoniously) to all the generations to come."
--Psalm 71:18 (non italicized editorial comment added).

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Coming Dilemma?

Pier Closed
Originally uploaded by VALKA76
Voter will be deciding "Shall Key West take over the County Beach from Monroe County?" or wording to that effect. It's something that is long overdue (imho), even if we had to pay for it. But this time it's gonna be free. The County apparently doesn't want to pay for the maintenance and upkeep.

Ay, there's the rub! The give-away comes at a time when the local government's proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. Already opponents are squawking about the cost.

The beach has been problematic over the years, because of the congregation of dirtbags there. As everyone knows, they have ruined it, except for a few holidays when the public overwhelms them.

Sure, dirtbags have rights, too, and it's un-Christian (and some say unconstitutional) to run them off. But the public also has rights. After all, we are all paying for it, directly or indirectly.

Someone floated the idea of charging a nominal fee for the use of the tables, and it sounds like a good solution to the problem. It's also a good way to raise a small amount of revenue.

There are ways of financing this thing, even in the face of the coming shrinkage in the tax base. And since seem to be so many groups who consider themselves "green," it might be nice if a few volunteers came forward to help keep the place clean. Not unheard of, worth a try. It's about time Key West did something for residents and regular people.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Uh-oh, They're Sayin' the 'T' Word!

Hmm, it seems a few old-timers were saying, "Don't marry the city revenues to cruise ship fees. Sooner or later somethin' is gonna happen(the cruise lines decide Cuba is a more popular port of call, we have a recession, or fuel prices go up), and then what are you gonna do? Raise everybody's property taxes?

Well, the inevitable has happened. Cruise ship revenues are down. And yes, they're already talking about raising the taxes. And a few other newer revenue raising schemes as well. It wasn't too long ago that someone ran the idea of another "penny sales tax" up the flagpole. We don't recall a massive exodus of people running out to salute it. Just the opposite, in fact.

It's a shame, because we're going to need more money, for infrastructure on the soon-to-be-developed former Navy property. And the question of the city's taking over the County Beach will be on the ballot, an idea long overdue, but it's going to cost a little money to keep it up.

Add all this to the fact that our dwindling middle class is already strapped, the fact that we seem to be headed into a recession, hopefully minor, and the fact that it always takes government four times as long and costs four times as much to do anything, and it's obvious that there are some storm clouds on the horizon.

On top of all this, real estate values (read tax base) are actually starting to decline.

It looks like we are in for some major readjustments, and not a little belt tightening. It's something that has to be worked out, especially if we are going to be able to keep our community an attractive place to live and to visit.

Sunset for "Critical Concern"?

Smathers Beach circa 2020?
They say that the State of Florida designated Monroe County an "area of critical concern" back when then Governor Bob Graham (a land developer himself) saw a drag line from the air, dredging up baybottom to make building lots, and causing a plume of silt which went all the way out to the reef.
Add a few local governmental irregularities, and it became obvious that the Keys, a state and national treasure, was likely to go the way of Miami Beach. It was decided that the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) would have to review every new construction building permit in the county, as well as every change in the Land Development Regulations.
That oversight has lessened over the years, and it's been noted that some of the bureaucrats in that department have been overzealous at some times, and not zealous enough at other times. Of course, that's human nature, and the nature of bureaucracy itself. It's not perfect, but it has worked for a long time.
It's no secret that some, in fact a considerable number, of our local political types have been sending up trial balloons to the effect that we're all mature adults here, and it's time for Tallahassee to stop treating us like delinquent stepchildren. If you just moved here, you might even think that it was a good idea to get rid of another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.
But if you look at the recent history of our County and the cities within it, you might just feel that a few extra safeguards might be a good idea. It just might be beneficial if an ostensibly neutral party vetted both land development regulations and major developments, just to see that they were compatible with the county's Comprehensive Plan. And compatible with the notion of concurrency: whether we'll have enough middle class housing, enough water, enough police and fire and emergency protection, to name a few items. And also to make sure we'll have tolerable traffic patterns, the possibility of safe and speedy hurricane evacuation, and the protection of our local water quality, to name a few more.
Right now it looks like dumping Critical Concern may take a while. But it's coming. It may be too soon to flood the governor with letters, and e-mails, but if you are a "regular person" who has no stake in seeing the Keys trashed, it might be a good idea to get your thoughts ready. It's coming.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sad News Out of Vermont

Since early February, 2008, I had been following the story of Nicholas Garza, 19, of Albuquerque, NM, a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont (my undergraduate alma mater), who disappeared mysteriously on the night of February 5th.

The story was baffling, because he left all his personal possessions, including winter clothing behind. Neither his friends nor family saw anything unusual in his behavior during his first semester at the school. He didn't seem like the type of person to take off without letting someone know. He was in contact with his family via cell phone almost every day.

Snow cover prevented a thorough outside search until May. The last place to look was in a log jam that forms just below a waterfall below the main bridge over fast-running Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury. And sure enough, that's where they found his body on May 27th.

So it's a sad closure for his family and friends. Still to be explained is how he got into the creek, a considerable distance from where he was last seen, especially considering the fact that it was still winter in Vermont, and he was not dressed to be outside for any length of time.

The family has been maintaining a web site at .

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Oy Veh! Four Bucks and Headed Higher!

There's an old saying that goes, when the rest of Florida catches a cold, the Keys get pneumonia!

Here's what the pundits are saying. Look for $5 per gallon by mid-July! A recent news poll says 1/people are planning on staying closer to home, 2/they're reconsidering purchasing RV's, and 3/if they're looking for work, they're looking closer to home.

The situation may be neutral news for Key West--many of our summer visitors are Floridians, who have relatively shorter distances to travel to reach the Keys.
RV's are no longer as prevalent here as they were in the 70's, for example, due to fewer places where you can rent a space. (Remember the Searstown parking lot in overflow times?)
But pity the poor guy who is doing a 60 mile round trip from Big Pine five days a week. Even if he gets 25 mpg, that's an easy $50 per week on fuel alone, just to get to work. And that's in post-tax income.
Of course, we've been through all this before. The winter of 1973-74 was worse. There were times when you couldn't get gas at all. (I was managing a marina then.) This was during the Nixon administration, even though as people look back, they seem to blame Jimmy Carter for the shortages.
If we had done what Nixon AND Carter recommended, we might not be in the fix we are in today.
As far as local predictions go, if the tourist flow dries up, we will have some economic disruptions. In the 70's we got hit by a double whammy: weight restrictions on the bridges and rising fuel costs. The prices of everything went up, and they stayed up. On the plus side, a good many people here live close to where they work. We are also bicycle friendly, at least on the island of Key West.
In the long run maybe we'll see more electric vehicles here. The tourists seem to love them, they don't pollute (at least directly) and they're quieter than a gas-driven vehicle. Maybe if more people think "out of the box," and the powers-that-be realize that they can make just as much money (or more if the current situation continues) by stressing the "green" aspects of our community, then maybe even the real estate market (after a reasonable adjustment period) will be jump-started. And we'll all wake up in a better place....hope so, anyway....

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Cayman Islands?

Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman
When I was experimenting with Google Blogger back in March, I posted a link to an article from the Miami Herald (since deleted) and numerous comments about Key West from readers. This one, with a reference to the Cayman Islands, didn't catch my eye at the time.
As it turned out, we stopped there on a cruise at the end of March, first time back there since 1971! Wow, talk about changes. We really didn't get out of Georgetown, just a short trip up to the Seven Mile Beach (see picture above). Five, count 'em five cruise ships hovered offshore, kept in place by their bow thrusters and GPS navigational systems. My guess is that close to 12,000 people disembarked that day.
Granted, the islands are still recovering from a hurricane two years ago, and granted, we didn't get to go over to the other side of the island. But it sure had changed from the last time I was there. No more can they call it Britain's Forgotten Colony.
I'm just glad I got to check it out before mass tourism put it's whammy on it. On the plus side, it looks as if the water quality is still good, and they seem to have saved their reef, from what I heard. But if Georgetown is what the above poster was talking about, I'm not so sure.... I mean, how many beers can you afford at $8 a pop?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Three Pronged Test (Redux)

Yet another link added, "The Three Pronged Test." Thanks again to Bob Kelly for remembering this handy test for initiatives that come before local governmental legislative bodies.

All too often in the past we have seen items presented as "housekeeping" ordinances, or items presented with a sense of urgency that defies the fact that no one seems to be sponsoring them!

We've always been wary of changes to regulations that might take away the few protections that regular people enjoy with regard to their residences, especially (but by no means limited to) Old Town in Key West.

And we remember how almost all the standards for variances simply disappeared from the city codes a few short years ago, supposedly from a printing error. In short there has been an "urge" originating we know not where, to re-do the variance system, whether it's to divvy up variances into "big" and "small" sizes, and let the Board of Adjustment handle the "big" ones, while the "small" ones can be handled "over a handshake behind closed doors" (as one real estate entrepreneur put it a few years ago).

So now comes a plan (which looks to be by and large a "done deal," so we can only hope for the best here) to turn the variance granting authority over to the city planning board. How does this plan do when the Three Pronged Test is applied?

Bear in mind two things here. Similar plans have been deep-sixed in the past because the public insisted on having these decisions in the hands of elected officials rather than appointees. And in other areas, variances are just that, a rare and seldom granted variance to the land development regulations, granted only when the applicant can prove a hardship--not as a matter of course, or convenience. Here in Key West a few years ago one builder was advertising on his vehicle, "We do Variances!" On to the test:

1. Who wants it and why?
Obviously in this case the city commission. It's a lot of work and a lot of sitting through long meetings. (Some say that way back when some officeholders supplemented their incomes through this activity. This being 2008, we'll dismiss such talk as anecdotal.)

2. How does it benefit our Key West community?
Well, it may actually help speed up the process. Since each commissioner will now appoint a planning board member, rather than have the mayor appoint all (with the usually pro forma consent of the commission), there will still be some degree of public accountability.

3. What about negative consequences and what could we do to mitigate them?
The answer to this might lie in the small print of this ordinance. Unless someone has the time and resources to take a close look, and to come up with a reasonable critique, there is no advantage in expressing an opinion.

Unless there is something more than what we see on the face of it, this new method of granting (what should be) rare variances seems acceptable. It would be comforting to know exactly who on the commission is sponsoring it, and a few more reasons why it will benefit our community.

PS: It's not really a new issue. Look at what happened to these poor saps a few years ago. They left and put their house on the market; it finally sold a couple of years later. Click Here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Couple of New Links

I have posted a few new links. The first is a link to Bill Estes's new web site. (That's Bill on the left, at the Key West Seaport in 2003.)
Bill is running for Monroe County Commission, and has some good ideas about how to keep the Florida Keys a great place for visitors and residents alike.

Jim Kunster is an author and artist, who has written several books on urban planning. The most well-known is "The Geography of Nowhere," about how faulty long-range planning has marred the American landscape. He has been in Key West, both as an invited lecturer (to the Florida Planning Association) and as a winter resident. He is highly opinionated, and his language is (more than) a little salty, but he accurately predicted the arrival of our current energy crisis almost to the month. His blog is a good read, if you are interested in what people need to do to get us out of our current situation.

And we also added a link to Save The Turtles, an Upper Keys organization dedicated to doing just that. Sure, there are a few oldtimers around who will tell you that sea turtles were just plain good eatin', and even I can remember when some fishermen would shoot them just for fun, and let the bodies sink to the bottom. (They claimed they damaged lobster traps.) But it's now 2008, and informed up-to-date people must realize that those days are over. We must save the turtles. "As the turtles go, so go the Keys (and, for that matter, the seas)."

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Good Question

Above photo: an abandoned Duval Street during Hurricane Ivan

Another post by Bob Kelly, quoting a couple of entries from Citizen's Voice.

"Gas prices are at all-time highs. Airline travel has increased to the point the average tourist won't travel. Stay-at-home vacations will be the norm this year. What impact will this have on Key West? It will be devastating. Someone better tell the powers that be that the tourist economy that we have come to depend on will be nonexistent this summer. This news, with the housing market crisis, will have a negative impact on our economy. Where will the money come from? How will the average worker survive? It's a mess!"

"If you haven't put money away this season to survive through the summer, you're likely leaving KW soon. Rising airfares, hotel rates, and food prices couple with overdevelopment, crooked government, unwanted upscaling, and vanishing character no longer makes it such a great place to be for both tourists and locals alike."

He asks, "Are they pessimists or realists?"

My thoughts, unedited:

"It will be devastating. Someone better tell the powers that be that the tourist economy that we have come to depend on will be nonexistent this summer."

Surprisingly, I don’t think so. There is a traditional election year slump, but a large number of summer visitors are Florida people, still arriving from relatively short distances by car. As long as you can walk from your lodgings to a place where you can find a drink, or (ahem) other things people like, Key West will be an attractive venue. After all, as H. L. Mencken (I think) said, "Nobody ever lost any money by underestimating the taste of the American people."

"This news, with the housing market crisis, will have a negative impact on our economy."

Barring another hurricane, the housing market will eventually recover. Rents, of course, are a function of supply and demand. Although they have seemed unconscionably high to some of us for 20 years, it's only recently that demand has not exceeded supply. Still, many people employed in our local economy seem willing to pay up to $800 a month for a room in a shared house. "Catch as catch can" has been a major and workable "affordable housing" solution for many years.
What will happen after the inevitable "feeding frenzy" of buying that so many real estate agents are praying for is another question.

"Rising airfares, hotel rates, and food prices coupled with over-development, crooked government, unwanted upscaling, and vanishing character no longer make it such a great place to be for both tourists and locals alike."

There’s the rub. The signs of what was going to happen have been evident for almost twenty years. For a number of reasons, the public has not been galvanized to work for change. With the exception of a few well-informed individuals and groups like Last Stand (which has had its ups and downs, but now seems to be emerging from its Great Sleep) the public interest has been largely trumped by smart lawyers and politicians, few of whom even bother to pay lip service to the idea of maintaining some modicum of balance. There is always the danger that word will get out that Key West is in danger of becoming an overcrowded, overpriced dump, but then, again, maybe Mencken was right.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I Saw A Turtle!

Not that some people don't see them every day...but yesterday was one of those warm, calm spring days when you know that the snorkeling will be world class here in the Keys.

Just offshore one of our favorite spots, a few short miles north of Key West, I came face to face with a green turtle. (That's not the same one in the photo above, but you get the idea....)

The one we saw was about 18 inches across the shell, measured lengthwise. On the right rear of its shell, approximately at the 4 o'clock position, there was a chunk missing. Most probably this was caused by a collision with a motorboat propeller.

It took one look at us over its shoulder and high-tailed it out into deeper water--a smart fellow. I hadn't seen one so close up since I lived in the middle Keys in the early 70's. They were more plentiful then.

In fact, turtle steak was still on the menu of many restaurants. A few turtles were still brought in to the fish houses in Marathon. If you've ever seen one butchered, it's a sight that you probably didn't forget.

Having seen it, that's one of the reasons that I recognized the remains of a much larger turtle on the bottom as I swam back to shore. Who knows what happened to that one. A collision with a motorboat? Death from ingestion of plastic or some kind of man made debris?

The point is, it's good to know that some of them are still around. And it's a reminder of how precious our environment is here, and how important is the work of the few who exert considerable effort to preserve a little of what we had here for future generations, no matter how thankless that task seems at the present time.

Here's another picture showing the "bountiful harvest" at the "turtle kraals" in Key West Bight earlier in the last century (probably sometime before 1935). Turtles were still harvested as late as the mid 1970's. A couple of current Key West old timers, who contrived to have retirement homes in the Bahamas, were heard bragging about dining on fresh turtle, as if it were their birthright. Too bad they didn't take care of what they had, rather than giving it away for the price of a house.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The New Flag of the Conch Republic

Or some Conchs call it our official "flower," since they seem to be sprouting up everywhere like our trees and bushes in the spring: real estate for sale signs.

For those of us who have been around any length of time, it's not really a new thing. We've seen other cycles, way back when, when the Conchs built houses in New Town, and sold their family homes on Simonton, Duval, and Caroline Streets.

Concrete and block houses were easier to take care of. They were closer to Winn-Dixie and Food Fair, not to mention the new Sears store, and the high school. And besides, everybody was moving out there.

Then there was the great gay influx. Not that they/we/one human family weren't here all the time, but a bunch of them did bring in a certain verve, making something out of nothing. Jimmy Russell and Peter Pell set the dye on the first "Key West Handprint Fabrics" in the dryers at Pinder's laundromat, didn't they?

Before you knew it, some of the old houses downtown actually had paint again. And they were sold and resold, always in cycles. At one time or another, the early eighties for example, fully one third of the houses in some areas in Old Town were on the market. People came and went. As some wags say, "In Key West only the actors change. The roles remain the same."

Let's face it. A lot of people made a lot of money buying, remodeling, "cream-puffing," renting, selling, "flipping," condo-converting, or whatever. If you made a lot of money, you were an expert. You could rip a wing off the goose, and it would still lay that golden egg.

Three short years ago, easy mortgage money, loose appraisal practices, and good old-fashioned All-American greed led to skyrocketing real estate prices, and for a few clever ones, some nice profits. As far as the real estate boom went, as one local banker said, "We can't see the end of it with binoculars!"

Of course some of the old-timers, who hadn't sold out and joined the massive Conch emigration to Lakeland, Ocala, and points north, clicked their tongues, and said, "Just you wait and see." Sure enough, Mother Nature, the mortgage markets, insurance companies, and politicians feeding off of our ad valorem property taxes pretty much killed the goose that was suppose to lay that golden egg.

Without further elaboration, we are now at the beginning of another cycle. Some say that if we don't get another bad hurricane this year, the real estate market will recover by next winter. (Yes, they said that last year too, but that was just wishful thinking). After all, our hole card has always been that it doesn't snow here in January. The inconceivable is finally happening: prices are actually coming down.

So, barring a depression or similar national tragedy, some real estate people are hoping for the coming "feeding frenzy." And given the past economic history of this place, there's no reason that it won't happen.

And then will everything be "all right" again?

Ay, there's the rub. More of this anon.

Latest on Missing Student

Nicholas Garza has been missing from the peaceful and bucolic campus of Middlebury College in rural Vermont since the night of February 5th, 2008. He was last seen leaving on foot from one dormitory to another about 11:00 PM.

Now that spring has arrived in Vermont the area around the campus has been searched by police, search teams with dogs, and on the weekend of April 26, by more than a hundred volunteers who came from all over Vermont and adjacent states.

The only clue that has been reported in the press and media is the vague sighting of something that might have been similar to some of the clothing that he was said to be wearing when he disappeared, seen in the fast moving waters of Otter Creek, which flows from south to north through the town of Middlebury.

A more comprehensive search will have to wait until the spring flood waters subside. It's a sad and baffling story. Middlebury College is one of the most competitive and highly-rated liberal arts institutions in the country. The young man reportedly was bright, popular and well adjusted. He was not wearing winter clothing when he left to dormitory. The section of the creek where the objects were sighted is not readily accessible from the campus, and in February there was substantial snow cover on the ground, which would have impeded the progress of anyone, even with the proper clothing and footwear.

His family is still maintaining a website: