Key Largo Ocean Resort's board of directors recalled

Article Courtesy of The Florida Keys Reporter

By David Goodhue

Published December 24, 2009 

The state has ordered the board of directors of one of the largest developments in the Upper Keys to be removed.

A Department of Business and Professional Regulation arbitrator on Dec. 21 certified a recall of the Key Largo Ocean Resort Cooperative’s board, a recall which was originally voted on July 25. That five-member board, including its president, Pedro Salva, was at the center of a row over a site plan for one of the largest redevelopment projects in the Upper Keys.

The arbitrator ruled that the new board - Juan Alvarez, Scott Barret, Oreste Lopez Recio, Felix Perez and Gicela Pino - is to take over “effective immediately.” It was ruled that the old board did not give proper justification for not counting several ballots in favor of the recall.

The 22-acre oceanfront property at mile marker 94.8 has been out of compliance with county code for decades. It was originally zoned for temporary mobile homes, but over the years, permanent trailers with decks and Florida rooms have sprouted up.

Most recently, Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia, answering a motion request by the County Attorney’s Office, ordered everyone out of the park by Jan. 15. Chief Assistant County Attorney Bob Shillinger wanted the evacuation because county officials said the park contains numerous fire hazards and is a disaster waiting to happen. Shillinger said he does not expect the ousting of the board of directors to change that decision.

“The injunction was based on life-safety issues that exist at Key Largo Ocean Resort regardless of who the leadership is. It may change how the injunction and life-safety issues get resolved,” Shillinger said.

New board member Oreste Lopez Recio said he and his colleagues plan to adhere to the development agreement at the heart of the controversy there, which has pitted neighbor against neighbor. He said a decision on whether to appeal Garcia’s evacuation order was to be made at a meeting Wednesday night, which was after press time.

The development agreement and site plan were agreed upon by both the county and the board under Salva as a way to bring the park into compliance with county building and fire codes. It called for the 300-plus structures there to be razed and replaced by modular homes. The plan was approved in 2005, but a group of residents who did not want to leave their homes — some part-time, some full-time residents — fought in numerous courts to have it thrown out. They lost every time.

In the meantime, the previous board was working to implement changes to bring the park into compliance. This included paying the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District about $14,000 to get plans to connect to the sewer system reviewed, and beginning to pay assessments that will total about $840,000 over 20 years, Chuck Fishburn, the director of the wastewater district, said.

The plans to connect to the main system were necessary because the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the park’s on-site package plant shut off because it’s leaking sewage into the ocean, said Don Craig of the Craig Co., a Key West-based design and planning firm hired by the past board.

It was unclear at press time what the old board’s legal options are in terms of appealing the state’s certification of the recall.

That group’s attorney, David Rogel, said he filed a motion with Garcia to keep the old board on until an appeal with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is decided, but BPR spokeswoman Alexis Antonacci Lambert said the decision is final.

“The decision is binding. It can’t be appealed,” Lambert said.

At issue in the recall are ballots the old board’s attorney, Marathon-based Frank Greenman, said should not have been counted. It was because of those ballots that the matter went in front of DBPR. Greenman said at a July 29 meeting that the ballots were questionable enough to send the issue to DBPR’s Division of Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes arbitrator David R. Slaton.

The park’s cooperative association has 284 members, of whom 165 voted to recall Salva and the old board.

Greenman did not return a phone call for this report.

On Aug. 25, Slaton, the arbitrator, issued an order to the board to show documentation why the ballots should not be considered. The board filed a response that it could not comply because the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office had possession of all the association’s records after it carried out a search warrant on the property in July for an unrelated matter.

But Deputy Gregory Larochelle testified that he made it clear to office manager Maria Hernandez that the Sheriff’s Office was not shutting down the association’s operations and she could obtain any record she needed at any time.

Slaton based his Dec. 21 decision on Larochelle’s testimony.

Despite Recio’s claim that the board plans to go through with the development agreement, it’s unclear when the park will be razed and if the same players will be involved.

A $5.4 million development contract was recently awarded to Fountain Engineering to do the work. But Craig, who was instrumental in hiring Fountain, had strong words for the new board.

“They are a small group of malcontents who have been able to convince a number of shareholders that they can reverse the decision taken by the county,” Craig said.