A U.S. Department of Homeland Security facility the county rejected in 2011 that was supposed to be built in Tavernier is now mostly finished in Key Largo.
At least one Homeland Security agency that will use the building is U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to a Dec. 7, 2015 memo sent to the Monroe County Building Department from Michael Gaffney, physical security specialist with CBP. The subject line of the memo is “Physical Security Requirements for U.S. Customs and Border Protection Key Largo Marine Unit.”
Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said it will be used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and possibly another agency, but Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman, said his agency is not using the building.
The two-story building at 101350 Overseas Highway is surrounded by barbed wire fencing and its entrance is a guarded gate that opens and closes horizontally. There is another identical-type gate a few feet onto the property.
Murphy referred to the gate system as a “sally port.”
“That’s a dead giveaway that prisoners are involved,” Murphy said. “For an instant, you’re trapped. It’s a safety thing for prisoners.”
A CBP official said the building will not be used to house prisoners and is strictly an administrative facility.
Gaffney wrote in the memo that “the entire site must be contained by an 8 foot high perimeter fence” per the agency’s “Policy and Procedures Handbook.”
From 2011 to 2013, the Department of Homeland Security and Tampa-based developer Hoover Properties fought the county and residents to be able to house agents with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations at the former Florida Keys Electric Cooperative building at mile marker 91.6.
Opposition among Tavernier residents was strongly rooted in concerns the 10,316-square-foot building would also serve as a jail. Both Hoover representatives and federal officials repeatedly denied the facility would be used to house prisoners. The county Planning Department rejected the project because, although the facility was going to be a “public building,” it was not a necessary public building. Also, the old co-op building, which has since been bought by Baptist South Florida, is located in the Keys’ only historic district outside of the city of Key West.
An administrative law judge ruled against an appeal of the county’s decision in 2013.
The Key Largo property is owned by a South Ranches man named Monte Green. He could not be reached for comment.
Since the Key Largo property is on a lot zoned for commercial use, nothing about the project needed approval from the five-member County Commission, Murphy said. According to a review of online notes from the permit application, the county approved the site plan, which was titled “Site Plan Key Largo Shopping Center” in December 2015. That site plan approved 2,484 square feet of retail space.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204