|By Kevin Wadlow, Florida Keys Keynoter,
MarathonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 20, 2011--Officials at a company seeking to establish an offshore resort north of Key West committed to protecting the marine environment before an occasionally skeptical marine advisory panel Tuesday.
"If you allow us, we're going to improve the environment," said Doug Pope of Elevated Water Resorts, "not take anything away from it."
Members of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, meeting at the Marathon Garden Club, peppered Pope with questions about liability, hurricane evacuation, bottom damage, aesthetics and other issues after Pope's presentation.
"What if the design fails?" asked council member Bruce Ferer. "Or what happens if you get less occupancy than you expect? Who's left holding the bag?"
Pope said he is confident the proposed Oceana Resort will be highly successful. "It's the only thing like it in the world," Pope said. "A lot of people are interested."
"We would hope that if we spend $20 million, it's not going to fail," he said.
The six-story structure would be built on a 230-foot-by-128-foot base platform, held over the Gulf of Mexico surface by four semi-permanent pilings on pads resting on the sea floor, 55 to 60 feet down. The site being studied is 16 miles northwest of Key West, outside state and sanctuary waters.
The resort would be classified as a vessel since it can be moved, but requires federal permits because it would remain largely stationary.
Pope said the resort could break even with just 17 of its 50 rooms filled at $600 per night (meals and shuttle included; alcohol and boat rentals extra).
"There is a chance you could fail," said Jason Bennis, a conservationist member of the council. ""How can we be sure it won't wind up sitting out there waiting to be destroyed?"
"The Oceana would be a highly desirable metal structure. There will be somebody willing to take it away."
Patricia Bradley, a non-voting council member representing the Environmental Protection Agency, worried the 110-foot-tall structure would be a blight on the gulfside scenery.
"When I go out there in my boat, am I going to see a big ugly thing?" Bradley said. "That's my perspective."
Pope said the resort would be designed to be attractive, with native landscaping to simulate an island environment. "People on boats will notice it," he said. "Hopefully, they will like it."
He contended the resort would boast the latest in eco-friendly technology, from solar and wind power to generators partly powered by steam from a self-contained waste-treatment system. Tanks holding 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel would be built to be water-tight in the event they should sink into the gulf. Nighttime light levels would be kept low.
"The resort and all its ancillary vessels will put less pollution into the water than just one of the smallest outboards out there now," Pope said.
Environmental consultants for the project described the bottom at the location as "oozy mud, with no hard-bottom resources." A few scattered crustaceans were the only creatures visible during an initial site survey, they said.
Pope said when he began working on the idea of using a jack-up vessel as an offshore resort, he initially proposed placing it on the oceanside near the Marquesas. Environmental issues sidetracked that plan quickly.
Rudy Bonn of Reef Relief and Al Sullivan of Last Stand raised ecological issues in public comments. "The devil is in the details," Sullivan said. "We need to have these in writing."
Pope said the 4-million-pound structure would be built near Green Cove Springs and transported to the site. The first guests would not arrive at Oceana for at least two years, he said. That would give the project backers time to address many of the concerns raised.
"We want this to be a positive asset to the community and environment," he said. "This isn't something we dreamed up last week."
The Sanctuary Advisory Council took no formal action on the current proposal, but members may submit comments to federal permitting agencies as individuals, said Chairman Bruce Popham.
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Copyright (c) 2011, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon
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