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Key West tropical forest | The garden needs your vote for the 99-year lease

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


If you’re on a mission, and most of us are, when you make the turn off the Overseas Highway onto College Road on Stock Island, you’re going to breeze right past the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden.

Who can blame us? We’re headed to the SPCA animal shelter, Gerald Adams Elementary School, the Monroe County jail, the College of the Florida Keys, the hospital, the golf course, heck, even the city’s transportation center and KOTS, the overnight people shelter. Headed pretty much anywhere except the internationally recognized tropical forest and botanical garden. It’s there, of course; just hard to see if one’s not paying attention. A smidgen over 15 acres (15.2) of complex tropical ecosystems, wetlands, three fresh-water ponds and a haven for migrating birds and butterflies are jostled on either side by the golf course and Key West’s new workforce/affordable housing project.

On Aug. 23, the not-for-profit Botanical Garden Society wants Key West voters to approve a 99-year-lease between the City of Key West, which owns the land, and the society, which is the steward for this unique 86-year-old botanical garden and tropical forest. Since its groundbreaking in 1934 and official opening in 1936, the garden society’s 10-year city land lease has put its existence and its future at the mercy of the changing needs and political will of the city.

Key West tropical forest 99-year lease

The 99-year lease ensures two things:

  • That this fragile conservation area doesn’t become, oh, say, parking for the adjacent golf course or the housing development. Don’t think it can’t happen. Shortly after its opening in 1936, as part of the post-Depression, federally funded island renaissance, the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden was a hefty 55 acres. By 1961, the city had whittled the garden to 11 acres. The other 44 acres had been reallocated to expand the golf course, to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s water tanks and to the now-defunct Monroe General Hospital. Today the garden has 15.2 acres after purchasing a few acres in 2005. Without a long-term lease, even those could be at risk. It doesn’t take much skepticism to imagine a time when someone argues we need affordable housing more than we need a bunch of trees because people are more important than migrating birds.
  • That the garden society has a realistic chance to benefit from long-term capital funding grants that can sustain and improve the garden and the forest. The garden, as a not-for-profit, depends on public and private grants, private funding and donations, venue and event fees and visitors for its funding. The city does not fund the garden, though it does occasionally help with such things as grading a parking lot or replacing a stop sign. Though its recovery after Hurricane Irma’s devastation in 2017 has been little short of miraculous, those repairs and restoration fell squarely on the garden’s limited resources. The garden does not have the cash to fund major capital improvements, such as adding a new visitors center at the entrance and replacing the education department’s old trailers with safer, more efficient spaces. To qualify for major capital grants, which are available, the garden needs a 99-year lease. Not surprisingly, capital grant funders frown on short-term leases.
Key West tropical forest path
Key West tropical forest sculpture

The City of Key West has long had long-term leases with the Key West Yacht Club and the Key West Golf Course, both managed by private entities and one, the yacht club, not open to the public. Those leases were done before the city charter required voter approval for long-term leases. In contrast, the Key West Botanical Garden Society, which manages the tropical forest and garden, is a not-for-profit organization with GuideStar’s highest rating, the Platinum Seal of Transparency. It’s open to the public every day except Christmas and News Year’s Day for a nominal entrance fee, which is often waived for service men and women, children and always for members and admission is free on the first Sunday of each month for locals.

I’ve voted for the 99-year lease (mail in ballot). Seemed like a good decision to protect the only subtropical botanical garden in the continental United States. I hope you’ll do the same. And, just so no one raises hue-and-cry and although I’ve told you this before, full disclosure: My husband, Ed, is president of the garden board. I have been the garden’s website manager since 2017, which was before Ed became a board member, much less president. So, obviously, I’d be inclined to vote yes. I’m pretty sure Ed did, too. If you haven’t already done so, please join us.


  1. Beverly OConnor

    I would love to vote for this lease but it wasn’t on my ballot because I live in Monroe County. I hope it passes. I would like to make a donation to your newsletter or the garden .What would be the best way to give?

    I enjoy reading your Sunday articles. Thank you.

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