Marathon to pay $3 million settlement

Sep 30, 2011

The following article was published on September 30, 2011 in the Florida Keys News:

Marathon to pay $3M settlement

Grant funds to purchase Boot Key may be coming

By Marc Phelps

The City of Marathon has agreed to pay $3 million in a settlement over the removal of Boot Key bridge.

“It wasn’t in line with the actual value, but we knew the situation the city was in,” said Joe Nascone, owner of Keys Radio Group. “They didn’t realize how much they disturbed my business.”

Nascone — owner of the only development on the isolated island of Boot Key, a radio station and transmission towers — had been in the legal battle with the city in a takings case centering on his property’s lost value with the removal of the bridge.

The draw bridge was put out of commission by the City of Marathon in late 2007 at the request of the Florida Department of Transportation. An FDOT report showed it would be a danger to keep the bridge in operation without costly renovations. The bridge was the only connection between Boot Key and the rest of the Keys by way of Marathon.

“This is the result of two mediations, which bore good results in our opinion,” City Attorney John Herin told the Marathon City Council in advance of reading the resolution that finalized the deal into the record at Tuesday’s council meeting. The settlement amount includes all legal fees, and dismisses all aspects of the circuit court suit.

“In the range of risk, it’s an excellent result for the city,” City Manager Roger Hernstadt told the Free Press. Hernstadt said the operating costs for the bridge were about $100,000 per year, short term repairs were slated to cost $1.5 million and long term repair estimates were as high as $6 million. “This was the lesser expense.”

According to Hernstadt, insurance through the Florida League of Cities will cover the first $1 million, and the remaining money will come initially from reserve funds. “We’ll seek to finance that over a period of time,” he said.

Nascone said Wednesday that he thought the result was fair to all.

“I didn’t think it was overly cooked,” Nascone said of the settlement. “We tried to settle all along. We tried to be as fair as we could with the city. I’m pleased with it, and I’ll be able to retain the property.”

Nascone said the tower and transmitter have to stay on the island, but he plans to move his studios and other work spaces to Marathon.

Boot Key’s future

“It’s good to close that chapter,” Hernstadt said of the settlement. The next chapter is already being written, however, as the city learned Wednesday it had qualified for a Costal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) grant tied to the purchase of Boot Key.

According to Hernstadt, the grant — administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — is for $1,527,500, but must be matched dollar for dollar.

“Now that it’s posted, we can begin the process to put together matching funds,” Hernstadt said. “We’ll see if the city can raise that through the state, county and other resources.”

Marathon Planning Director George Garrett said the money can be used to purchase all or part of Boot Key. The purchase price must be in line with appraisals for the property done by specifically certified appraisers, according to Hernstadt.

“One of the conditions of the grant is it’s a willing seller at appraised value. They will only allow certain appraisers with certain qualifications,” Hernstadt said.

“We have a willing seller, theoretically, on all three parcels. And now we have the ability to buy them,” Garrett said.

Nascone said his understanding of the CELCP grant was that it had been another option in his lawsuit, not a follow up to that process. But he said he might be interested in terms that would allow him to keep his tower and transmitter on the island.

“There’s no animosity there. We’re open and we’ll talk,” Nascone said.

At least some on the Marathon council have indicated previously they would like to purchase the island to preserve it — it’s one of the largest remaining mostly natural islands in the Keys — and open it for eco-tours.

“The money is for conservation. It would be possible for recreational purposes or activities as long as habitat is not destroyed,” Garrett said. “We’ve talked about hiking, biking, kayaking and bird watching.”

Hernstadt said it would likely be at least a few weeks before he received the paperwork for the grant and was able to process it and present it to council.

“But we’ll do what we can to begin to get prepared,” he said.

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