Little Palm’s big tug of war

Little Palm Island Resort & Spa
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa

The expansion plan of one of the Florida Keys’ most exclusive hotels has stirred up a maelstrom.

Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, which lies three miles off the Lower Keys, is especially popular with well-heeled honeymooners and other couples seeking a romantic getaway — discreet or otherwise. On its website, where the hotel’s 30 thatched bungalow suites are typically bookable for more than $1,000 per night, Little Palm coyly promotes itself as a secluded destination for couples that don’t want to be found.

“Indulge in a blissful affair with island isolation at our Florida Keys resort; where champagne is poured by mid-morning, the sea sparkles in the late-afternoon sun and the only decision of the day is whether to wake up for an early morning snorkel or lounge lazily enjoying a leisurely frolic,” the website reads. “This is your romantic retreat and you never have to admit to anything.”

But the new expansion plan, under which Little Palm would build an adjunct vacation rental resort on the mainland at the marina where it launches its ferries, has residents of the adjacent Jolly Roger neighborhood crying foul.

“They want a rezoning so they can do any doggone thing they want to do,” said Roy Griscom, who lives immediately across a narrow canal from the ferry-launch property, called Dolphin Marina. “And it’s just not right. What are we supposed to do on the other side of the canal?”

So far, Little Palm, which is owned by the Kirkland, Wash.-based boutique hotel operator Noble House Hotels & Resorts, has not submitted a site plan for the Dolphin Marina redevelopment. That would only come if the company succeeds in convincing Monroe County to rezone property, located about 28 miles northeast of Key West, from its current Suburban Commercial designation to Mixed Use. The change would allow Noble House to build 22 single-family residences that it proposes to use as vacation rentals.

Jim Hendrick, whose consulting firm Critical Concern Consultants is doing Noble House’s planning work on the project, said that the adjunct resort would serve as lodging for wedding parties and expand the pool of Little Palm guests overall.

“Little Palm is one of the most successful resorts anywhere, but their facilities aren’t really designed to accommodate large family groups,” he told The Real Deal.

Dolphin Marina is far from empty now. Its sizable gravel parking area is filled in with 12 rental cottages, a boat ramp, a ship store and marine fueling station, a check-in office and a gift shop for Little Palm Island and the ferry launch.

Nearby residents and a local planning commission voted against Noble House's rezoning application on the first round in December.

Nearby residents and a local planning commission voted against Noble House’s rezoning application on the first round in December.

When the local Monroe County Planning Department reviewed the rezoning application last fall, it recommended approval — noting that the site already contained a resort and marina.

“We did not anticipate that this would stir as much controversy as it has,” Hendrick said.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Nevertheless, when the matter first went before the planning commission last November, seven speakers showed up to argue either that the redevelopment would harm the character of the neighborhood or that the zoning change would set a detrimental precedent for the entire Lower Keys.

It was enough for the commission to continue the rezoning hearing.

A few weeks later, 43 Lower Keys residents turned out for a community meeting that Noble House organized to talk about the project. Hendrick and his partner Donna Bosold presented an informal site plan that showed the proposed configuration of the rental homes.

The consultants also showed that the hotel’s owners planned to relocate the Little Palm ferry launch so that the boats would be able to access the Dolphin Marina property directly from the Atlantic, rather than through the canal that the marina shares with the Jolly Roger neighborhood.

The latter proposal addressed one of the residents’ main concerns. The ferries, which run twice each hour from early morning until well into the evening, are a subject of scorn in the Jolly Roger neighborhood, where some complain that they are loud and that they cause too much wake.

Noble House’s presentation was enough to sway at least one Jolly Roger resident.

“I think it will improve the neighborhood,” said Frederick Zydeck, who explained that he was assuaged by assurances from Hendrick and Bosold that the boat launch would remain open to neighborhood residents and also by the notion of moving the ferry launch away from the canal.

Nevertheless, when the rezoning went back in front of the planning commission in mid-December, 16 people showed up to speak against it and Jolly Roger Property Owners Association President Joe Brill presented a petition of opposition by 27 neighborhood residents. The commission voted against the rezoning 3-2.

It was a skirmish lost for the Little Palm resort but not a defeat. The rezoning application is scheduled to go before the Monroe County Commission on April 20, and board members aren’t bound by planning commission recommendations.

Brill told TRD that he remains sharply opposed to the rezoning, in part because Noble House has told neighborhood residents that the site plan they presented at the December community meeting is subject to change. “Once they get the zoning, they can do exactly what they want,” he said.

Hendrick, however, said that Little Palm is dealing with the neighborhood in good faith. 

“Noble House is bending over backwards trying to resolve these concerns, but I think most of those won’t be resolved until they learn it’s not what they fear,” he said.