To the chagrin of Big Coppitt residents, county board OKs rezoning to allow about 200 housing units

A pressing need for more Lower Keys affordable housing outweighed the concerns of Big Coppitt Key residents Wednesday.

Monroe County commissioners unanimously approved changes to zoning and the county land-use map that could lead to about 200 income-regulated housing units off mile marker 9 bayside after a three-hour discussion at the Harvey Government Center in Key West.

"I don't like to disappoint folks in that [Big Coppitt] community," Commissioner David Rice said. "But if affordable housing is that big of a problem, and we've already acknowledged that it is, then we have to make some hard decisions."

The housing presumably would be mostly for employees at a proposed Walmart shopping center on Rockland Key. Developers of that said the center will need about 600 workers.

The 14-acre project, backed by the Rockland Operations LLC managed by Frank Toppino and Edward Toppino Sr., still must get a development agreement approved by the county and go through the major conditional-use process.

"We've got a lot way to go here," Commissioner Danny Kolhage said.

Residents of the neighboring community objected, sometimes heatedly, to effectively doubling the area's population and adding more traffic that could bottleneck at a U.S. 1 entrance.

"To pack that many people in the least amount of space -- is that a wise idea?" asked Riviera Drive resident Lucinda Kennedy. "Please don't destroy the quality of peoples' lives."

"This will forever change our lives and the face of the community," Chris Majchrowicz said. "This will change everything."

Greg Daniels contended the process "has the appearance of a backroom bubba deal."

Ron Demes, executive director at Naval Air Station Key West, said the military "remains absolutely opposed" to increasing density in areas that would be affected by noise from the military's flight operations.

Business people and elected county officials endorsed the Toppino proposal, noting 80 percent of the proposed rental units would be available to middle-income residents needed as part of the Keys workforce.

"Our [employee] turnover rate is high because of the cost of living and housing," Sheriff Rick Ramsay said. 

Certified law officers decline job offers because "they say, 'All I can afford [for housing] is garbage and I would never let my family live there,' " Ramsay said.

School Board member Ed Davidson said the School District will be able to retain only one of 15 new teachers hired this year because of living costs. "They think it's a great idea to come here but find out they can't afford it."

"We need housing to keep people here," said Virginia Panico, vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. "It's at a crisis level."

Supporters of the project noted the Toppinos are seeking only available affordable-housing allocations, and will provide the property and construction costs.

Project attorney Barton Smith said any construction would not begin until final development approvals are given, which likely will take at least a year.