Ownership of Key West islet in dispute

Dec. 13, 2012 at 3:23 PM
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KEY WEST, Fla., Dec. 13 (UPI) -- An artificial island in the Florida Keys has become the focus of an ownership dispute involving the federal government and the family that bought it in 1967.

Wisteria Island in Key West Harbor was created by the U.S. Navy from dredge spoils around 1900. The late Ben Bernstein paid $155,000 for the 21-acre island, but then, his son, Roger, says, the family "kind of ignored it" while turning neighboring Sunset Key into a luxury resort, The Miami Herald reported.

Over the years, Wisteria was used for training by Navy SEALS and as a hideout by hippies.

Now, the Bernsteins want to develop Wisteria. But locals who want the island to remain natural -- or as natural as land little more than a century old can be -- say the state of Florida did not actually own Wisteria when it was sold the first time in 1951.

Naja and Arnaud Girard, who own a marine salvage company in Key West, dug up documents that appear to show the U.S. Navy held title to the island until 1982 and then transferred ownership to the Department of the Interior.

Naja Girard says the state auctioned off the island over the Navy's objections. State Rep. Bernie C. Papy Sr. acquired it for just over $6,000 and sold it in 1956 for more than $100,000.

When Ben Bernstein acquired Wisteria, he and his heirs paid their property taxes and left the island alone, until the family decided in 2007 to develop it.

The government has asked a federal judge to dismiss F.E.B. vs. United States of America, arguing the family has no valid claim on the island. The Bernsteins, of course, disagree.

"This is a land grab by the federal government of epic proportions," Roger Bernstein said.

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