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I like The Island House, a two-story cinderblock structure built in 1959 that has 10 units with sliding glass doors that open onto the beach, and four less expensive rooms nearer the road. I have also stayed at The Beachcomber (next door) and A Place To Be (across the street), both of which are good. There are 11 motels on the strip, and two more on the north end of the key. What you get are clean, quiet rooms (some with kitchens) that cost upwards of $85 a night in the off season. You don’t have to put on your shoes to get to the water, either. I thought you’d be interested.

The place appeals to me because it’s a reminder of how Florida once was. When I was growing up in Nokomis in the 1960s, I would ride my three-speed bike up Casey Key Road to a friend’s house. He lived in a one-story stucco bungalow with jalousie windows and a yard paved with seashells. Now, in late middle age, I still ride my bike up that same road, but today the houses are much bigger, and a lot of them have bunker-style concrete walls. Their backs are turned to the road, and it isn’t unusual to see a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway. Some of the yards are still paved with seashells; others are just paved.

Homeowners on Casey Key have always been well-to-do, but in the 1960s, beach wealth was more understated and accessible. Today, the sandspurs have been replaced by “No Trespassing” signs. If you aren’t invited, you aren’t welcome. Yet the unpretentious Casey Key rental district thrives, serving a clientele of middle-class repeat visitors who, by the way, are probably not thrilled that I am telling you all this.   

“We feel very blessed that my grandfather took a risk and bought Island House,” says Jennifer Means, whose family has owned the place for three generations. “Over the years, we have made so many friends here.”

The motels survived as an unintended consequence of a state law that mostly failed to accomplish its main goal, which was protecting the “semi-rural character” of Casey Key. The people who run the motels put in long hours but seem content, because one of their job benefits is living in a working man’s Shangri-La. The mansioneers don’t really get in the way, either, because those big houses are often empty. Even when they are occupied, the beach is public land up to the mean high-tide line, and it’s all public land for nearly a mile down to the North Jetty. 

Sometimes when I’m taking that walk, I silently thank Philip C. Smashey. He probably never knew it, but Smashey made all of this possible.

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Casey Key is small—about six miles long, 500 feet wide—and separated from the mainland by Venice Jetty to the south and two small, mangrove-lined bays to the east. Shifting sands filled in Midnight Pass to the north in 1983, and that sand bridge allows a nice, seven-mile walk from Island House to Turtle Beach, at the southern tip of Siesta Key. The farther north you walk, the more expensive the sand gets. Best-selling novelist Stephen King owns a house at the northernmost end of Casey Key; his neighbors include the descendants of Bertha Palmer.

Philip C. Smashey wanted a piece of this. He was a developer in the 1960s, the golden age of get-rich-quick Florida real estate. He owned 50 acres of mainland bordering the Tamiami Trail, Dryman Bay and Blackburn Point Road—the current site of Bentley’s Hotel—and in 1964, he opened an amusement park on his land.

“Floridaland” was a mash-up. It included a pen full of goats and the rarest of all Florida landscape features, an actual hill. It also had a “Western town” where the “sheriff” had a shoot-out with “banditos” several times a day. It had a dolphin show and a small roller coaster. As a child, I was dazzled.

But for others, the dazzle faded. Floridaland closed in 1971, the same year Walt Disney opened his slightly larger mash-up theme park in Orlando.

Smashey had other plans, anyway. He wanted to tear down Floridaland and build a high-rise condominium that would tower over the low, tasteful houses at the north end of Casey Key. Big condo developments were popping up all over Siesta Key in those days, and another developer was making noise about building a high-rise on Casey Key itself.

Big, high-rise development was unacceptable to the residents of Casey Key, many of whom had friends in high places. So in 1970, the state legislature passed a law creating the Casey Key Conservation District. The law prohibits large-scale dredging and filling, limits buildings on the island to just two stories, and requires Sarasota County to zone the land for “semi-rural” single-
family residences.

If you owned a business within the Conservation District when the law went into effect, you were allowed to continue operating it. But the law made it impossible for Casey Key business owners to expand without chopping their way through a nearly impenetrable bureaucratic thicket.

The law has kept the buildings from getting bigger and more modern over the decades; instead they remain in suspended animation, caught in a 1970 time warp that’s worlds away from today’s luxurious beachfront accommodations.

The Casey Key Conservation District is 45 years old now, and the motel strip it protects could almost qualify as an historic district. The motel owners have accepted the law, although they add that it is a regular source of irritation. “We had to hire lawyers and confront the county a few years ago, because they were being so strict that we couldn’t do anything,” says Tekla Dragan, co-owner of The Beachcomber. “We couldn’t replace our roof. I couldn’t even pick up trash in my back yard without getting a permit.”

Yet the motels are often full, and guests are on a first-name basis with owners. That’s just how the key’s homeowners like it. “We realize that the motels are part of Casey Key,” says Connie Davis, a former board member of the Casey Key Association who lives about 100 yards away from the site of Phil Smashey’s proposed condo. “We look out for them.”

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Dr. Fred Kroner probably didn’t mind when the law passed, because he liked to keep things low-key. He was a dentist who lived in a small town outside of Champaign, Ill. On a vacation to Nokomis Beach in 1960, he impulsively bought Island House from the man who had built it just one year earlier.

Jennifer Means, “Doc’s” granddaughter, grew up on a farm near Champaign. “After the harvest, my mom and dad would drive down to Nokomis and give the motel’s hired managers a vacation,” she says. The family would spend the winter running the motel.  “I went to Nokomis Elementary School, starting in the third grade,” says Means.

“Growing up there was like having eight sets of grandparents. Art and Jenny Klegg rented one of our rooms for the winter, and Art would meet me at the school bus. He and I both loved to swim, so I’d put on my suit and he’d take me swimming so my mother didn’t have to,” she says.

I have been staying at Island House for 15 years. Fifty years ago, my mother even gave some of her hard-earned money to Phil Smashey so I could ride on his roller coaster. But I never knew any of this until I started asking questions, and that’s the point. When you go to Florida on vacation, you’re supposed to forget about zoning laws and profit margins and all the other stuff that torments you every other day of your life. And on the south end of Casey Key, you can do it in style for less than $100 a night.

Means says that the motel’s managers take pains to ensure that the place remains quiet and informal, just as Doc intended. The rooms are comfy but proudly retro, with terrazzo floors. Some rooms even have Murphy beds. There are windows inside the doors, and if you open them it lets in the ocean breeze, so you usually don’t need air conditioning.

And it all sets you up for long, lazy days on the public beach, which looks roughly the same as it did in 1965.

“The best part of the day here is the sunset,” says Means. “Whoever is here comes out to the back patio to watch. Someone always brings drinks and snacks, which usually are shared, and we have a little party while the sun goes down. We don’t act like strangers. Once the sun is gone, everybody goes back into their rooms like birds going into their birdhouses. When you’ve been out playing in the sun all day, you’re tired at night.”

It’s fun to remember Phil Smashey and his pals, but it’s also important to understand how this particular slice of old Florida got the best of them. The same thing happened on Sarasota County’s half of Manasota Key, by the way. There are three small motels on that seven-mile stretch of beach. Never underestimate the power of riled-up neighbors. 

Brad Edmondson, author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s, writes about social responsibility in business.

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