Key West officials have approved an offshore barrier to redirect algae accumulating on South Beach, posing a health threat and harming nearby businesses. CONTRIBUTED

Key West’s South Beach may be swimmable again, with no piles of seaweed or sargassum, and the accompanying stench of its decay posing a health hazard and injuring the adjacent resort and restaurant.

On September 20, city officials approved the installation of an algae barrier designed to prevent floating seagrass from accumulating in the basin at the south end of South Street between the Southernmost Beach Resort and the Southernmost House.

“Once the seaweed lands on the beach, it begins to decompose and emit hydrogen sulphide, which has an unpleasant odor and has been linked to respiratory problems, nausea and eye irritation,” the documents say. from the city. “According to the Florida Department of Health, the tiny sea creatures that live in Sargassum can irritate the skin through direct contact. Additionally, the buildup of seaweed makes the shallows near the shore thick with seaweed, making them unsafe and unpleasant for swimming.

State and federal environmental agencies have approved the barrier. Several employees of the Southernmost Beach Cafe and its adjoining resort have spoken out in favor, citing headaches, nausea and dizziness, along with hundreds of negative reviews online and constant customer complaints about the unsightly beach and the l intolerable smell despite daily beach cleaning efforts. In its lease of the city-owned beach and restaurant, the resort pays the city about 6% of the restaurant’s gross revenue, which has declined significantly since seaweed has worsened in recent years, the resort’s general manager said. .

But not everyone agreed with the barrier. Hugh Morgan, whose family lives next to the southernmost house, told the commission that the barrier could redirect floating algae back to his property, where algae is currently not a problem.

Before unanimously approving the barrier, commissioners amended the plan to ensure Morgan had a clear complaints process. Officials have also been assured that the barrier can be removed and detached from its seabed anchors if it is not effective.

What about vacation rental rules?

Officials at the Sept. 20 meeting postponed any votes on new short-term rental rules until at least December, following public workshops, discussions and collaboration among city staff. Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said future workshops are expected to take place in the evenings, when working residents, many of whom are renters, can participate. She pointed out that the initial workshop on the subject took place on September 8, a weekday, from 9 a.m. to noon, preventing many working residents – and tenants – from attending and voicing their concerns.

The proposed rental restriction, as currently drafted, would prohibit rentals of less than six months at properties without a newly implemented short-term rental license. More than 100 real estate agents, mortgage brokers, property managers, lawyers and vacation rental home owners filled the city’s September 8 workshop to oppose the new rule. They explained to officials why they believe the rule would do nothing to increase the city’s long-term annual rental inventory for working residents and offered alternative solutions to the city’s housing crisis.

On Sept. 8, Paul Hayes suggested the city put a moratorium on conversions of multi-unit dwellings to single-family homes that typically become vacation rentals. One woman, an out-of-state landlord participating via Zoom, received no support from the public when she suggested that Key West, especially Old Town, is simply too expensive for working tenants, who should consider driving up the Keys to Big Pine where rents might be cheaper.

Resident owner Todd Santoro said: “I think of vacation rentals as businesses operating in residential neighborhoods. I can’t have a business in my house, with customers coming and going. I wonder why we allow these companies.

To encourage more annual rentals, speakers suggested extending the significant tax benefits of homestead exemptions for principal residences to landlords who rent annually to residents. These landlords provide a primary residence for someone, even if they are not the one who lives there, say supporters, including former city commissioner Margaret Romero, who tried more than a decade ago to launch an initiative aimed at preserving long-term rentals. She received no support on the commission at the time.

Other workshop participants raised a perennial proposal: use money from the Tourism Development Council (TDC) – paid for by tourists to attract tourists – to fund affordable housing. State laws specifically dictate how TDC money can be spent, and affordable housing is not a permitted use. Any change would require legislative action, which has long been considered unlikely.

At the September 20 City Commission meeting, City Manager Patti McLauchlin assured lawmakers that more workshops would be held. Commissioner Sam Kaufman said he was initially hesitant to postpone the vote on the proposed rule given the city’s severe housing crisis, but he eventually agreed to the postponement.

Mayor Teri Johnston said the Sept. 8 workshop raised several concerns. “I assume that we will have to modify this proposed ordinance before voting on it.”