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In a rarity, Last Stand doesn't take a stand on Peary Court purchase

Built as military housing, Peary Court is now a 157-unit subdivision in Old Town where rents average $2,400 a month for two-bedroom homes measuring more than 1,000 square feet. Key West voters will decide March 15 whether the city moves to buy Peary Court for up to $55 million.
Built as military housing, Peary Court is now a 157-unit subdivision in Old Town where rents average $2,400 a month for two-bedroom homes measuring more than 1,000 square feet. Key West voters will decide March 15 whether the city moves to buy Peary Court for up to $55 million.

Last Stand, a group that for 28 years has remained an outspoken advocate for quality of life in the Florida Keys, has refused to take a position on whether the city of Key West moves to buy the Peary Court rental complex for up to $55 million.

"We don't have the facts," Last Stand's leaders wrote in a letter this week to its members. "Rather than make a recommendation based on incomplete information, we have decide to stay to the side."

The decision by the group's board after its Feb. 29 meeting was unanimous, said spokesman Mark Songer.

"We weighed the impacts of saying yes or no and without the information and the way we like to do things, we didn't feel we could say either yes or no," Songer said.

Last year, though, Songer, on behalf of Last Stand, told the City Commission to hold the referendum on Peary Court, but worried the project could result in a "taxpayer bail-out" if financial predictions mapped out by proponents failed to materialize.

Songer, who already cast a ballot in early voting, wouldn't reveal how he voted on Peary Court.

On March 15, Key West voters will decide the proposed Peary Court buy, which a political action committee led by City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley calls a last-ditch effort to preserve workforce housing on the island where a couple hundred square feet goes for $1,500 a month as a studio apartment.

Weekley and Manuel Castillo, executive director of the Housing Authority of Key West, made two presentations before Last Stand's leadership, with the final one Feb. 29.

"After their presentation on Feb. 29, too many unanswered questions remained to make an informed decision," Last Stand said in a letter to its members.

Peary Court, built in the 1990s as military housing, is a 157-unit subdivision with tree-lined streets, playgrounds and cul-de-sacs, all tucked away in a corner of Old Town off White Street and Palm Avenue.

The $55 million price tag would break down to $350,000 per unit for more than 1,000 square feet plus a carport and a leafy view. Peary Court rents average $2,400 a month but if deemed affordable housing the rents would be adjusted to meet Key West's law that sets certain rents by income limits.

City leaders say they inquired when the property hit the market in 2013 but couldn't pursue it because the seller, a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty called Southeast Housing, demanded a confidentiality clause that would have broken the Sunshine Law.

White Street Partners, a group led by Everett Atwell, scooped up the 24-acre complex for $35 million with plans to demolish every inch to make way for luxury homes.

But when its designs couldn't get past a city advisory board, the developers decided to become landlords, devising a new company, Peary Court Holdings, to serve as owner.

The Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West has endorsed buying Peary Court but opinions vary widely on the island, with City Commissioner Margaret Romero opposed and Commissioner Sam Kaufman saying he remains on the fence.

"There's definitely pros and cons," Kaufman said. "It's definitely not clear cut to me."

Songer couldn't say if Last Stand's decision to stay out of the Peary Court debate was unprecedented but he called the move rare.

"Normally we would come out and say we're recommending one way or another," he said. "Certainly on the channel-dredging we weighed in."

That was a 2013 political battle over whether Key West needed to order a federal study on effects of widening its harbor channel to accommodate larger cruise ships.

Despite an expensive campaign backed by the Key West Chamber of Commerce, the measure failed miserably at the polls in an election where more people voted on the ballot question than voted for mayor.

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